In the coming days, weeks, months, and now years, stories have circulated indicating that these men may have carried out their actions in part because of a religious conviction that they held regarding what their reward would be for sacrificing their lives in martyrdom for their cause. The conviction some or all may have held was that, immediately after their physical death, they would be ushered into the Islamic version of Heaven, a paradise where they would enjoy unimaginable pleasures—including having 72 beautiful young virgins at their disposal at all times.
In response to this information, some Americans took a grim pleasure in passing around “jokes” about what happened when these hijackers woke up and found themselves not in a lush paradise, but being lashed by tongues of fire, and with no virgins in sight.
The obvious implication of these jokes is that these fanatics would not be in Heaven, but in an ever-burning Hell, where they would spend eternity enduring torment, rather than enjoying the pleasures for which they had hoped.
However, a question seldom addressed by any Americans, in the media or even in private discussions, is—
What happened after death to those other 2,967 people
who died in the tragic series of events of that day?
Avoiding the Unthinkable
The notion of the Afterlife is something that even many “practicing Christians” seldom if ever think about. Even in situations such as the 9/11 tragedy, they tend to focus on the enormity of the physical tragedy and avoid thinking about the spiritual ramifications of the situation. Perhaps this is because they subconsciously realize that focusing on the topic may lead them to some very uncomfortable, painful, and perhaps even terrifying thoughts.
For, you see, most churches teach that in the instant after death, the soul of every person must be immediately sent permanently to one of two destinations, Heaven or Hell. All true Christians go to Heaven. There they will have unlimited joy in the presence of God, and will be eternally happy. All other people go to Hell. There they will be totally cut off from God, as well as from all of their loved ones who ended up in Heaven. They will be consciously and constantly in pain and suffering and mental anguish permanently, with no relief throughout the eons of time.
So what would the average minister in such a church really believe happened to those people who died a horrible death in the fiery infernos of the plane crashes? He would be convinced that instantly some, the ones who were true Christians … probably a minority, according to many churches … went to Heaven to be with God. And the rest? They immediately found themselves in another fiery inferno, in torment in Hell—in the company of the very men who sent them there by their nefarious actions in the physical world!
Such churches teach that the souls of all who have not met the qualifications taught by the church go immediately to Hell. And they will be tortured there forever. It is important to note that someone does not have to be a viciously evil person, such as a serial rapist or murderer, to be sent off to Hell according to this set of beliefs. And just because someone was a gentle, selfless humanitarian, that doesn’t guarantee him a position in Heaven. From the point of view of many churches, everyone is subject to this instantaneous decision of destination based on their knowledge of a certain set of beliefs of one particular religious group, and how they reacted to that knowledge.
And here is something that surprises many people when they first discover it: According to the teachings of most churches, there is no “special dispensation” of any kind made for those who never even heard of the Bible or Jesus, let alone those who never heard of the denomination itself. If such a person dies, they are believed to go immediately to Hell.
Nor is there any such dispensation for the sincere person who wants to know about God, but is so confused in life, by all the conflicting claims made about religion, that he never seems to be able to sort through them all and make a decision what to believe. He sees so many different, competing televangelists on TV who assure him that by getting on board their own idiosyncratic system of belief he will be assured of God’s favor. And so many competing religious zealots come to his door offering to teach him about their interpretation of the Bible. He realizes that they can’t all be right, but finds he is totally unable to decide which one really is. Thus he too will be on his way straight to Hell when he dies.
What does this mean when applied to the situation on 9/11?
For those honest enough to face the teachings of their own denomination, in many cases it means that they are required to believe that perhaps a very large proportion of those 2,967 “innocent people” who died that day immediately went to the same place as the fanatics who caused their deaths! And those people will be suffering the same fate as those hijackers—physical and mental agony for all eternity.
How widespread is this type of belief? Here are a few brief quotes from doctrinal statements of a variety of religious groups.
It is impossible to describe the glory and splendor of heaven and the terror and torment of hell. … Knowing that this is the horrible end awaiting the wicked, the Assemblies of God is strongly motivated to win the lost before it is too late. (Assemblies of God)
We believe that glorious and everlasting life is assured to all who savingly believe in, and obediently follow, Jesus Christ our Lord; and that the finally impenitent shall suffer eternally in hell. (Church of the Nazarene)
We believe in the bodily resurrection of the dead; of the believer to everlasting blessedness and joy with the Lord; of the unbeliever to judgment and everlasting conscious punishment. (Evangelical Free Church of America)
The moral progress of the soul, either for better or for worse, ends at the very moment of the separation of the body and soul; at that very moment the definite destiny of the soul in the everlasting life is decided. … The Orthodox Church believes that at this moment the soul of the dead person begins to enjoy … the life in Paradise or to undergo the life in Hell. There is no way of repentance, no way of escape, no reincarnation and no help from the outside world. (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America)
The SBC 1925 statement referred to Hell only indirectly: “Those who continue in impenitence and unbelief are in his sight wicked and are under condemnation. This…will be made manifest at the judgment when final and everlasting awards are made to all men.”
Their 1963 statement referred to Hell directly: “…Jesus Christ will return…to the earth; …Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment.”
The committee’s year 2000 recommendations propose that the 1963 wording be retained. Hell will remain a place of eternal torture without any relief.
The Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board conducted a study in 1993 which estimated how many Americans have had a born-again experience. They concluded that 30% of adult Americans have been “saved” and thus are going to Heaven; the 70% remainder are destined for Hell.
The percentage of Canadians who are going to Heaven are presumably much lower, because of the relatively small numbers of Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants in that country — probably about 8%.
This final statement, when applied to the 9/11 situation, would indicate the possibility, according to Southern Baptist estimates, that 2,077 people who died in that tragedy were then thrown immediately into a much worse tragedy—a never ending one, in an ever-burning hell.
Bringing Hell Home
Does the average member of a congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention group really believe this? Does the average member of the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Free Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and many other such groups really believe that many if not most of the people who died that day are actually now being tortured in Hell in the company of the hijackers who caused their deaths?
And of course this is only one example of recent news stories of the deaths of large numbers of “innocent people.” What about the 275,000 or so who died in the wake of the gigantic Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004? Most of those deaths were in nations with huge numbers of people who have never heard any version of the Christian Gospel.
Does the average member of those churches above, and others like them, really believe all those people suffered and died in the waters of the Tsunami, only to be instantly cast into a maelstrom far worse … endless waves of flames in Hell?
And to bring this question of Hell much “closer to home”: Do all of these people really believe that every one of the 6.5+ billion people on Earth today who die without understanding how to become a Christian are going to an ever-burning Hell the moment they die?
If they do believe this, then it may be relevant to ask:
Exactly how much of their time, energy, money, and efforts
are they sacrificing to reach as many people as they can
with a clear message of how they can avoid this terrifying fate?
In a modern American religious landscape dotted with megachurches that may sport a Starbucks Cafe’ and a health spa down the hallway from their splendiferous sanctuary, with a million dollar parking lot outside, this doesn’t seem to be an unreasonable question.
If you have been troubled or perplexed
by the teaching that a mass murderer
of “innocent people” can doom his victims
to an ever-burning hell, right along with himself,
just by taking their lives before they have had
an opportunity to “know Jesus,”
you are encouraged to join me on this blog taking
a closer look at this teaching
in the light of the words of the Bible.