Friday of Trinity 1: What is the Topography of the Afterworld?

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And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.

This description of heaven and hell is like no description we get anywhere else in Scripture. That may be because it’s not actually a description of heaven and hell. When you actually think of it, what are the descriptions of heaven and hell?

Hell is described as a lake of fire, a fire that is never quenched, where the worm does not die. It’s also called the second death. The first death is the one to the grave, or to Hades, or to Sheol. Hades or Sheol must be understood distinct from the lake of fire. This is tricky because both Hades and the lake of fire can be referred to as “hell.” When Jesus descended into hell, for instance, it most likely was not the place of the eternally condemned, the lake of fire, but the place of the dead, or Sheol.

Meanwhile, heaven is described as, most importantly, “with Jesus.” That is really all that matters and irons over all strange nuances about what sort of bodies or what sort of consciousness we’ll have after death or after resurrection. We’ll be with Jesus. Amen. St. Paul says words cannot describe our inheritance. There are no tears, no hunger, no striking heat. It’s called Paradise.

Again, the idea that those in heaven can dialogue with those in hell has no parallel in any other text, and in fact seems to go against other understandings of heaven and hell we often have. Like, why would those in a state of perpetual joy be granted to see those in hell? It just doesn’t seem right.

Here’s the thing, the language of the text seems to indicate not so much the description of two separate areas, but of one area with two regions in it. Hades, or Sheol, was simply the place where everyone went, including the faithless and saints. It was the grave. Even the Gospel hints at this in how it describes the rich man being “buried.” And there’s a good chance “Abraham’s bosom” refers to the land of Israel, Abraham’s promised land from which the faithful would be “born from above,” or resurrected.

This would mean that both Lazarus and the rich man both went to Sheol, but there are two regions there, Gehenna and Abraham’s bosom. Gehenna is referenced with the words, “being in torments in Hades.” Notice it doesn’t say, “being in Hades, where he was in torment,” but “being in torments in Hades.” This is like saying, “Being in the heat of the backyard” i.e., as opposed to the shade. Or in the former’s case, as opposed to the comforts in Abraham’s bosom.

The idea there are regions in Sheol finds support in Deuteronomy, where the Lord says, “For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol.” The Hebrew in that last phrase actually reads, “to the lowest Sheol.” It was based on verses like this that many assumed regions in Sheol. The lowest Sheol is the place of God’s wrath. But in another part of Sheol is Abraham’s bosom, where the faithful wait until Jesus arrived – for until that time, as Jesus said, “No one has ascended into heaven” – and descended into hades to lead them out.

I think there’s another place in Sheol.

In the book of Acts, St. Paul was preaching to the Athenians. He was noticing all their gods and idols, and commenting on them. Then he proclaimed the true God, and he said to them, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

What does it mean that God overlooked the ignorance of the pagans? Does it mean they went straight to Abraham’s bosom? This doesn’t make sense, if only those who respond faithful to “Moses and the prophets” find their way in Abraham’s bosom. Does it mean they went to the torments in Hades? This doesn’t make sense either, because then how could it be said that God overlooked their ignorance?

What if there is a middle ground between the torments and Abraham’s bosom? What if there is a rather sizeable territory comprised of those who never heard the Word of God, so never received it or rejected it? If so, this would a “place of God’s overlooking,” a place I dub “Hyperidon,” for “overlooked.”

They would be held here until Jesus descended and preached to them. Upon hearing the Word of God, the time of “overlooking” ends, and they will either reject or receive grace.

The other thing to consider is that the entire idea of a “topography” of Sheol might be a heuristic only, a prop to help us understand difficult mysteries, but actually nothing to do with an actual area. I mean, is it really the case that there are spirits floating around somewhere, awaiting resurrection, fully conscious, some in one area, others in another area?

Perhaps the topography isn’t a spacial one so much as a chronological one, or even typological. All bets are sort of off anyways after death, as far as our consciousness goes. If Jesus could say Abraham was resurrected at the burning bush, we’re clearly in time-warp-ville. Of, if Jesus could say to the thief on the cross that “today” he was with him in Paradise, when Jesus had not yet ascended there, we’ve taken a trip to time-warp-ville again.

So, perhaps the torments are a type of those who reject, whose antitype is the lake of fire. Abraham’s bosom is a type of those who are faithful, and who die in comfort awaiting the resurrection to the world to come. And Hyperidon is a type of those who, while not saved on account of unbelief, are also not damned on account of ignorance. How the Lord will deal with them, who knows, but perhaps we can take some comfort regarding those who never heard, that the Lord has a special plan for them.

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