The Rapidian

Ethics and Religion Talk: Are Heaven and Hell Based on a Merit System?

Gen asks, “Is there a heaven and hell, or a type of merits-based system that determines the afterlife?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Dr Sahibzada, the Director of Islamic Center and Imam of the Mosque of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Everything is created by the Creator therefore Heaven and Hell exist for those who believe in God and follow His discipline of life. Worldly life and afterlife are two kinds of life. One we are already having in this world and other one is result of worldly life which will be awarded in accordance to merit-based system resulting in type of life humankind build up it in this world. The decision for afterlife will be made by God on Day of Judgment depending on kind of deeds one has earned in worldly life. Criminals must face the results of their worldly actions and righteous people must meet the reality of their deeds.

“ ‘Opponents of God and His Messengers will dwell in Hell for ever with supreme disgrace. The Word of God will come true and the Hell will be filled with people and invisible spirits.’

“ ‘The believers due to their right faith and good deeds will be awarded hospitable abode in Heaven.’ ”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Unitarian Universalist have a long history of believing in universal salvation, meaning everyone is granted access into heaven. In fact, that is the core belief of our Universalist identity. It is also true that we are less concerned about what happens in the afterlife and more concerned or engaged about this life here on earth.

“In looking at Luke 17:21(NRSV) ‘For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’ Many UUs would understand this to mean that we witness a kind of heaven and hell here on earth. For us one example of how hell exists here on earth is when children are separated from their parents at the border. As Unitarian Universalists we are called to raise our voices against these acts of cruelty. Many of us focus our faith in acts of social justice as a way of bringing heaven here on earth. We commonly use the expression, ‘We will Love the hell out of this world.’ ”

Father Michael Nasser, who writes from an Eastern Christian perspective and is Pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church, responds:

“The second half of your question reflects a common understanding of Heaven and Hell in much of Western Christianity: do good and be sent to Heaven, don't and you’ll be sent to Hell. While the Orthodox Church also understands that the consequences of our decisions in this life do impact the ‘afterlife,’ it's more accurate for us to say that there are natural consequences to our decisions in this life, which affect our lives in this life and the next. Some Eastern Christian writers thought that what we call ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ may just be the same ‘place,’ but experienced very differently. For those who love God and have lived their lives wanting to be closer, His presence is Paradise, but for those who do not love God, His love would be experienced as fire and suffering. We Eastern Orthodox Christians tend to place more attention than our Western brothers and sisters on the natural effects of sin--for ourselves directly, and indirectly on the whole world,  rather than punishment meted out by God. Salvation is offered for those who are joined to Christ and share in His conquering of death. In short, it’s not so much merits as natural consequences.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“Heaven ‘refers to the saints and the “place’ of the spiritual creatures, the angels who surround God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 85). Hell is ‘the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed’ (ibid., p. 269). Fortunately, for us salvation is a gift from Christ (ibid., p. 445).

“Yes, there is a heaven and Catholics believe that when our lives on earth are complete, we will enjoy eternity with God in that ‘place.’ The choice to reject God happens when we simply sink into the spiral of greatly sinning without seeking forgiveness. In other words, refusing to love God and this is hell.

“There is no merit system to get into heaven. Salvation is a gift that God freely gives to those who respond to God’s love. In other words, no one may earn eternal life by their actions. This does not give a person license to greatly sin but one’s actions demonstrate the God in whose image he or she is created.”

My response:

Judaism believes that one’s positive actions during one’s lifetime are judged and weighed against one’s sins. Many Jews believe in a heaven, although some people’s entrance into the next world might take longer than others, as the period of judgement after death acts as a kind of purification and and atonement from sin. The more sin, the longer the judgement period. Eventually, virtually every person goes into the next world, but there are suggestions in Jewish literature that exceptionally bad people never enter heaven. Rather, their souls experience the punishment of a permanent exclusion or permanently cease to exist. Either situation might be called hell.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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