I’ve been reading some of the comments on Kimball’s post on hell, and there is a point that I don’t think I made very directly in my posts on the subject a few months ago. Its worth making here.
Like many others, I believe that our best scholars are now telling us that scripture isn’t describing how we will “go to heaven after we die.” Instead, it is telling a story about how God is remaking heaven and earth, reassuming his “rule” over the earth (“the kingdom of God”). It is a present and progressive process – that is, even now God acts to reclaim his world. Furthermore, heaven is something that is intended to be ultimately joined with earth, not something that is separate from it.
The promise that relates to the “afterlife” is that we will be resurrected into the renewed creation, not – as Jedi Master Wright puts it – that we will be disembodied spirits in some distant, ethereal realm.
The message of scripture, then, isn’t about who will go to “heaven” and who will go to “hell,” but who will live within the new creation (and who cannot). It strikes me that, unless we can pose the question in that way, we are going to confuse ourselves from the very start. For example, we may start referring to this new world as the “afterlife,” which implies that – whatever that future existence is like – it is not “life.” But the promise of scripture is that in new creation there is life to the full – life in abundance; more life, not less. God’s new world is more real, more material, more “earthy” than this.
More to the point: you will never find distinctions between those present in “heaven” and those in “hell” in the NT because its not (exactly) framing things in that way. (If you have an issue here because of some images in Revelation – let me know – there’s a pretty clear distinction for me). But once you frame the question in terms of those who live in new creation and those who do not, I think you begin to think of the issues much differently.
…and just to reiterate: for me, it makes sense that the “outer darkness” of Ghenna is an image for the place where those who are “outside” of new creation are consigned. To say that they are in “Hades” implies that they remain in the realm of the dead, made famous by Greek mythology.