“Heaven is by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”
There’s an old barbershop tune with the lyric, “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Great destination; killer trip. Unless you really believe life is a meaningless accident, you have to ponder what’s next. What context do we fit into? Did we come from somewhere? Why are we here now? Where are we headed? The easiest thing to do is simply say, “I don’t know.” But the Bible says God has put eternity in our hearts, so at some level, we know something comes next.
“He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11
Heaven and Hell Are Destinations
Conception to Eternity
From conception, God has had a place for us in mind. In Psalm 138, King David wrote:
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Psalms 139:13-16
It’s interesting that David speaks both of our formation in the womb and alludes back to the creation of Adam from the dust. God’s perspective on us is one of formation, foreknowing, and fore planning.
“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” Ephesians 1:4-6
Before we were made God had a grand plan for us. He made us in his own image. He wants us to be like him spiritually so we can share an intimate relationship with him. Since it is a relationship, we get a choice in whether or not to engage in it. Faith affords us the capacity to choose from our hearts. Unfortunately, because God is all in all, the choice is fraught with consequences. Rejecting this relationship leaves us out of sync with God and all that he ordains. Separation from the author of life brings spiritual decay and ultimately death. In God’s grand plan, he expected the fall into sin. He planned to redeem us through Christ. That is why scripture says we must be born again. It is the only way to fix this broken relationship.
“Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.” Habakkuk 1:13
“I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” 2 Corinthians 6:2
God counts our lives here by the number of days. When those days are through, we have to leave this world and move to our eternal destination. Scripture says both are literal places. Heaven is for those who choose to be with God. It is God’s realm. If we reject that relationship, he will separate us from himself. Hell is a place of complete separation from God.
The Bible paints pictures to help us understand what Heaven and Hell are like so we can recognize the consequences of our choice, yet we cannot truly fathom either from this present context. Most of what it tells us is figurative or in the form of a dream or vision because they are so far beyond our understanding.
In Revelation, John has a vision of Heaven. It is amazing and surreal.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under his wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.’
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
‘You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.'”
John also describes Hell and judgment with very illustrative language:
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:11-15
To understand the language of visions in the Bible, it helps to contrast them with visions of events that have already happened, else you may be tempted to view them with a rather child-like literal interpretation. In the Old Testament, Daniel had very descriptive visions of future events that occurred in reality later. God conveyed prophecy to him through dreams. A good study in Daniel is useful to get how the reality played out versus the vision that illustrated it.
Heaven and Hell Are Kingdoms
Life And Eternity
Life is not simply about what happens when you die. If you think that way you won’t do much living in this life. Life has purpose now.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon tries to find meaning in life. He had vast wealth, power, and wisdom. Anything he desired to pursue, he pursued to its fullest.
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:10-11
Solomon had whatever he wanted and did whatever he wanted, but found himself wanting. It’s kind of hard to imagine having that same opportunity and coming up short. Imagine how much fun you could have with wealth and power! Solomon got to live out what we imagine. He was successful at it too. Why did he come to the conclusion that nothing was gained?
There were two problems:
1. It was temporary.
“For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!” Ecclesiastes 2:16
2. It lacked.
“All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:8-9
He found it all repetitive and never ending. More was never enough.
He came to this conclusion:
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:13
And what are God’s commands?
“Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:34-40
Jesus preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17) Coming near to God draws us into his kingdom from a world besieged by the kingdom of Hell.
We were made for Love. The Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual connection with Love. (1 John 4:8) The love that comes from God working in and through us provides the satisfaction our souls are looking for.
Here and now, every one of us is benefitting from God’s love, whether we know it or not.
“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45
In eternity the fullness of God’s love will be revealed to those who seek the kingdom of Heaven. The kingdom of Hell will be separated out from it and God’s benefits will be lost.
Heaven and Hell Are Paths
Each us has a future beyond this place, a path we will walk. At Judgment, the wonder and awe of God will be fully visible to all. All will see clearly what they’ve gained or lost by denying or accepting him. There will be no illusions left to cling to. It will be laid bare. What we based our lives on will be shown for what it is, then we will have to accept the path we’ve chosen.
There is a lot of myth about Heaven and Hell. The Bible only gives us a glimpse “through a mirror darkly.” Consider the reality of the pictures the Bible paints:
Hell is described as a lake of fire. Fire is used in the Bible to describe judgment. It is the feeling one has when convicted and sentenced. It is a place of endless regret and guilt. It’s where the loss is felt permanently with no remedy. Falsehood is exposed. No denial can be given. Love is gone. Sin concludes its cycle of destruction, fully actualized. Consequences held off are now completely engaged. It cannot be undone. There is no future hope. Hell is a prison of suffering.
Heaven is free. It is filled with love. Sadness is gone. Sickness and death are gone. Fear is gone. It is a place of safety and protection. Love rules. Hope never ends. All is restored. All is healed. Sin is no more.
God promises his children a new resurrected body like Christ, without corruption.
“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” 1 Corinthians 15:42-44
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians 3:20-21
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears,we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2
Without sin, we will be freed from its pull away from God. We will no longer be constrained from being all that God made us to be. Frustration and failure will be left behind. There will be no tyranny, no vanity, no evil to dread, no regret, no worry, no hurry, and no pain.
The past will be gone, no longer relevant, it will be forgotten.
“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” Isaiah 65:17-18
A new adventure will begin. We have eternity to discover an infinite God, to engage him as a bride to her husband. We will have unending fellowship together with him. Our bonds of love will be greater than any earthly bond, greater than marriage, greater than we are able to imagine.
Just look at what God has done in this universe, which is temporary. His plans are profound and unending. In Heaven we will be players in even greater things to come.