True Religion Does Not Demand that You Believe in Heaven and Hell

True religion does not require you to believe in heaven and hell. This comes on good authority, if you need it–the Bible. Writing around the time of Alexander the Great, long after the Babylonian Captivity and around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the author of Ecclesiastes, said very clearly in chapter 3:

Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other.
All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 
All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 
Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?

Hundreds of people were involved in writing the Bible over the centuries, representing different social classes, different political groups within Israel, different scribal schools, followers of different prophetic traditions, different genders, and different ethnic backgrounds. Every voice in the Bible deserves to be heard. To smooth over disagreements between the writers of scripture does violence to the integrity of those writers. This homogenization, this smoothing over, is the agenda of inerrantists, whose cardinal doctrine is not God, Salvation, or Christ, but Inerrancy.

I’m afflicted with a social curse: I am an intellectual. My wife says there is no doctrine or idea so sacred that I won’t take it apart, examine and question it. Her words are “play with it.” So I’m grateful that Ecclesiastes made it into the canon. The book of Ecclesiastes is skeptical, impious, and radical. I have frequently said, “If  Ecclesiastes can be in the Bible, then I can be in the church.”

The Bible says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” This usefulness extends to Ecclesiastes, and the lessons we can discern about the inevitability of major differences among God’s people. Ecclesiastes is an excellent example of Biblical writers answering one another, qualifying one another, to the point of disputing and contradicting one another.

The writers of wisdom literature reflect a spectrum of thought, from the traditionally pious writers of Proverbs, to the the writer who questioned the justice of a good God in the book of Job, to the radical skeptic Qoheleth (teacher, or academician), the author of Ecclesiastes. Had the authors lived in the same period, they may not have gotten along well. Since the canon contains this variety of religious attitudes, the church can contain a similar variety.

But this is not easy, as you know. People can only tolerate so much diversity in their church home. I think Paul would agree with the statement, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of your intellectual appetites.” Qoheleth teaches that there is no certainty regarding the nature of the afterlife. Even relatively orthodox belief systems offer a variety of afterlife scenarios, from immediate resurrection to soul sleep. Qoheleth provides another legitimate, more skeptical, belief.

I learned a long time ago that people’s beliefs do not guarantee their personal happiness or ministry effectiveness. I know that the perfect unity and oneness that Jesus and Paul speak of is definitely not uniformity of doctrine. So I don’t usually make an issue of my heterodox beliefs. In chapter 9 Qoheleth said,

The words of the wise in quietness
are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.

And in Romans 14 Paul said,

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.
Blessed are people who does not condemn themselves by what they approve.

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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19 Responses to True Religion Does Not Demand that You Believe in Heaven and Hell

  1. Excellent commentary! Similar to you, I said years ago that I liked Ecclesiastes because it demonstrated that even doubt can be an important aspect of faith.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Leaders who dismiss the value of Ecclesiastes say, “It’s in the Bible to show us what people believe who don’t have any knowledge of God.” There are so many problems with that. First, it doesn’t say that in the text. It’s an excuse. Second, Qoheleth demonstrates a powerful conviction to remain in the religious community, and gives the direction we need to get along with our traditionally religious companions.

      It’s unrealistic to expect traditionalists to understand, or acknowledge, the value of Ecclesiastes. That’s okay. They’re patient with me. too!


  2. Denise Smith says:

    Another wonderful article to point out what has been in the pages of the bible for us all to read and see for a very long time now, beginning with the understanding that defining for another what God knows, what God would have done, or not done was never to have come from any other source….. we can thus see how it is that the “beguilement” began from the beginning as well as the “transgression” and what it was really all about….. one cannot in all thy getting get understanding, if one is not willing to question everything…. beginning with the question as the Bible shows God asked Adam… “who has told you this….”….. That question will always point out to each of us how much we have “hearkened to the voice of another”…. which then is as illustrated in the bible, adds sin upon sin…

    Woe to the rebellious children who take counsel but not of God,…….

    We are all born with an innate desire to seek, to explore, to examine, to question……and it is surely not God that is denying that to us… nor has ever told us that we’re not to be skeptical or to question anything that is presented to us, and most assuredly about God, what God knows, or what God would have us to do. That is made clear in the opening pages of all our Bibles!! ♥


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Yup. Paul himself told the believers in Thessalonica, “Test everything. Hold fast to what is good.”

      Funny how we need the permission of Scripture to think for ourselves. 🙂 But that’s okay.


  3. Denise Smith says:

    Yes, Ron…. The scriptures have several places where the author states to “test everything” or to “prove me” etc. Its been right there written in those pages all this time…. and yet when we are shown that from the beginning that man was not to take knowledge of good and evil from another source… it was always to come from within himself… from the use of the abilities and capacities that were with him from his beginning, that was not trusted in… and the voice of another was hearkened to.

    What is also amazing is that the bible also records countless times that it continued on…. that people still continued to take counsel but not of God, even up to Jesus giving His commandments, doing miracles, and still not many even after three years “following Him” and doing as He said.

    So its not that we need the permission of the scriptures to think for ourselves… its more that we’ve had the scriptures telling us all that we are to be thinking for ourselves… to be using whatever it is that we have been given within us to test everything, to prove everything, to question it all ..even the scriptures… yet most aren’t following what the scriptures give permission and instruction on doing… even when we know that they tell us the very reason Adam faced all that misery and was put outside the garden was the result of having “hearkened to the voice of another” … and we still don’t seem to get the “message”!! ♥


  4. Tim Attwell says:

    I love it! “If Ecclesiastes can be in the Bible, then I can be in the Church.” Right on! It’s precisely the “variety of religious attitudes” in the canon that makes the Bible “useful for teaching…etc”. Incidentally, iro beleving in heaven and hell, if there was more talk in Church of the heaven or hell we experience before we die than afterwards, Church would make a whole lot more sense to a whole lot more people.


  5. Duncan Beach says:

    “Hell” is a misnomer, a concept stolen from the Norse, who had an Asgardian Goddess named Hel, the daughter of Loki and a Giantess, one of three monsters born to that union. The other two were the Fenrir (Fenris) Wolf and the Midgard Serpent.

    Hel ruled over a section of Niffleheim (the realm of the Norse dead) named after her. Here were found all those who had neither died bravely in battle (those went to Valhalla, nor died cowardly or evil deaths (they had a special place, too – back on Earth, or Midgard, they were either reincarnated as monsters to be slain, or cursed to spend their afterlives wandering, doing the things they’d done last, until their spirits changed and did the opposite of whatever had gotten them cursed.

    Hel (the realm) was cold and dank, but not horribly so, and the souls were sad, but not tormented.

    I believe that when our bodies die, our souls go to someplace, a lot like a forest, and there we dwell with our loved ones, human and otherwise, until it’s time to come back here.

    As to the concept of the ‘devil’, my thought processes went like this when I was ten or so, and I haven’t changed my mind since.

    God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent. God is represented as “Our Heavenly Father”. My father, when he was alive, took care of any threat that presented itself to my sisters or me. He wouldn’t allow things into the house that he thought would hurt us. How much more so must be God? If God is truly all those things I wrote at the top of the paragraph, the devil, as depicted, cannot possibly exist. God would NEVER allow something God KNEW WOULD harm us into the world. That poisonous creatures, deadly diseases, tornadoes, fires and the like, exist doesn’t escape my notice. But these are things that MIGHT harm some of us, not that WILL harm all of us.

    Some bring up death when I explain this rationale, but since I have no proof that death is permanent, I cannot call this certain harm, either, though it happens to us all.


    • Duncan: you are so right. And in German, if one wants to speak of the color “light blue” as in pale blue, one would say “helblau.” “Hel” means “light” as in “pale in color.” Isn’t that cool?


      • Duncan Beach says:

        So neat that someone else gets it besides the Pastor! Modern Christianity is a hodgepodge of so many other religions and traditions that it’s literally no longer possible to separate everything out.


  6. tomv52 says:

    Dear Ron and fellow readers,
    I struggle with pride masquerading as righteousness. Please receive this in the spirit of humility it is intended to be.
    I understand that you are saying, “True religion does not require you to believe in a heaven and a hell.” and it comes on good authority, the Bible. You base your premise on one verse, Ecclesiastes 3:19.
    (“Duncan Beach On” adds that Hell is a misnomer.) Everyone else is in some form or another is in agreement with the author’s premise.

    [Content edited for length]

    To conclude– In the final days of Christ’s first coming, his crucifixion, would you disrespect and disavow his sacrifice, the sufficiency for all our sins once and for all, by denying the hellish place he descended to, to defeat the Prince of the World? You would deny the existence of Heaven where The Most High is enthroned? Would you deny the place The Most High has reserved for the final banishment of all those who would seek the ruination of his Creation?
    I pray this is not of my pride but the Word of God. God bless us all.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Tom, please don’t cut-and-paste long sections of text. I write my own stuff, you need to write your own replies.


    • Duncan Beach says:

      Jesus died because some Jewish priests wanted the political power that accrued to him as a natural byproduct of his ministry. They wanted to deny his memory. Instead they made him a symbol for all eternity to date, Tom. And I reiterate what I said earlier – Hel is a Norse name, “Hell” is NOTHING to do with Christianity, and the Devil isn’t necessary.


      • tomv52 says:

        Jesus came to divide the world not “save it.” If you think he just ran into a couple of bullying clerics (pharisees) that’s your God given right. In the end each of us is going to find out what “fear of the Lord” is all about, each to ourselves, alone. BTW, do you like hot sauce?


    • Tim Attwell says:

      Hi tomv52, Many thanks for invoking one of the most evocative and powerful theories of the Atonement from the ancient Church – predating the perhaps overworked substitutionary theories developed in the medieval church, notably by St Anselm, and much beloved by evangelists (and evangelicals) ever since. The origins and signficance of the Atonement theory you invoke were well described a generation ago by Gustav Aulen in his book “Christus Victor.” However, in order to get the best out of the theory it is important not to lose sight of the symbolic nature of the images and narratives in all descriptions of the meaning of the Atonement. Once we have cottoned on to the symbolism in that wonderful way of describing the Atonement, that you clearly and rightly cherish, two things happen: 1. Our experience of release and renewal as a consequence of our experience of the love of God expressed in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is palpable. 2. We realise that words like “heaven” and “hell” are relational, not spatial or temporal. “Heaven” and “Hell” become ways of being with others and with God in this life, never mind the next. In other words, being “in Heaven” is like being “in love” rather than being “in Chicago” and being “in Hell” is like being in a state of alienation and anxiety rather than being “in Syria” right now. Blessings.


      • tomv52 says:

        The bible is God’s word. God’s teachings are black and white. Man creates the gray areas. Jesus’ dying on the cross for our sins is not some theory. You create alot of verbage to permit yourself to call the death and resurection a theory. Then, your every interpretation of the Word becomes a perfectly acceptable theory itself. Your interpretations are obviously based strongly on love but recall Jesus did not come into this world to make bad men good. He came into this world that dead men might live. Unless one’s core faith is rooted in the sufficiency of his sacrifice upon the cross one might question whether or not he is truly Christian. May the Holy Spirit guide you in your thoughts my brother. Tom


      • Ron Goetz says:

        Tom, you made numerous unsupported assertions just now. Let’s focus on just one of your confident assertions.

        “The bible is God’s word. God’s teachings are black and white.

        If God’s teachings are black and white, then explain to me how the following three quotes from the Bible are black-and-white. What do they mean, and how are they black-and-white?


        “Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
        Or you will also be like him.
        Answer a fool according to his folly,
        That he not be wise in his own eyes. (Proverbs 26:4-5)

        Tom, we are commanded to do two opposite things. How is this black-and-white?


        “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (I Cor. 15:29)

        Tom, how is this verse black-and-white? Explain it to me, please.


        “He who eats my flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks My blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6: 54-56)

        Would you explain to me what this means, according to your belief that God’s teachings are “black and white”? Thanks much.

        Tom, if you are unable to explain how these three passages are “black and white”, then you must concede that the Bible is not as black-and-white as you think.


  7. Tim Attwell says:

    Hi Tomv52. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not theories. That Jesus Christ died on the cross because of human sin and as a loving action in response to human sin and that his resurrection opens the way to new life for people who are dead both figuratively and literally are not theories. They are defining articles of Christan belief. The different ways that we explain how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reconcile us with God and each other and bring about new life for us are theories. Fact is, even the New Testament has many different ways to explain it and many are very different from each other. Cheers, Tim


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