“Where are you going?” is a common question asked when travelers meet. While their answers may vary widely, the Bible presents only two ultimate destinations: either heaven or hell. Because of their overwhelming significance, it’s important to be clear about the reality of these destinations. But what’s even more important is how heaven can be reached by a mere human being. The concept of heaven is presented from the very first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1 NKJV). Most references like this refer simply to the large open space of the sky, the atmosphere around our planet, and the expanse of the solar system: “God called the firmament Heaven” (Gen. 1:8). This heaven is a created space within the physical universe.
However, when people speak about “going to heaven,” they mean a place beyond this universe, full of joy and perfection. Four times in 1 Kings 8 (30,39,43,49) Solomon called heaven God’s “dwelling place.” And the Lord Jesus said, “heaven … is God’s throne” (Mt. 5:34). If you believe in the God of the Bible, you must believe in that kind of heaven.
Just as legitimately, you must believe in hell too. The word is used 15 times in the gospels, and alluded to many more times. And each time it is used, the speaker is no less than the Lord Himself. The factual existence of places called “heaven” and “hell” are established by His own words. Still, the question remains, how do people end up in either place? Is it random? Is it up to us to earn a place? Or is there more to it than either of those approaches?
SHEOL AND HADES
In the Old Testament, sheol represented the destination of every person. The word occurs about 60 times, and the translators of the Authorized King James Version divided their translations of it almost equally between the English words “grave” and “hell.” Sheol meant more than a location for burial; it was the place where souls went after death. It represented an irreversible change from a place among the living. It was an insatiable place, always ready to accept another soul (Prov. 30:16). It was a place of inactivity, where no one could any longer testify for the Lord (Ps. 6:5).
Although sheol was the common state of both believers and unbelievers, there was a distinction. The wicked suffered, while the righteous were comforted, as we learn from the Lord’s account of the rich man and the poor beggar, Lazarus (Lk. 16:22-31). While this poor beggar was comforted in “Abraham’s bosom,” the wicked rich man immediately suffered torment. In a sense, both men were in hades (the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament sheol), but one received peace and the other suffering.
The reality of this cannot be overstated. The rich man was so distressed that he would gladly have received one drop of water for a moment of relief. He begged, to no avail, for his family to receive a special warning. Further, his residence in hades was permanent: “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those … cannot … from there pass to us” (Lk. 16:26). There is no opportunity to improve one’s lot after death, either through purification, prayers of others, baptisms of others, or other means. It is irreversible: “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
Yet the blessed dead could already anticipate a resurrection. Job spoke of seeing his Redeemer even though his body might decay: “After my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:26).
PARADISE AND HEAVEN
The Christian era adds more to these teachings, as we learn from the Lord’s words on the cross. While dying, the repentant thief asked for the privilege of being with Christ in His future kingdom. It was a grand statement of faith, but the Lord made it clear that something even better would now await those who are His: “Today you shall be with Me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Paradise is not merely the grave or even the blessed place of Abraham’s bosom. The other uses of the word (2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 2:7) indicate that it is God’s dwelling place, heaven itself. We might say that the first person to enter paradise with the Lord would have been the last person we would allow into our own homes, given his prior lifestyle. Yet Christ’s redemptive work had made such a change in that man as to fit him for heaven itself.
Notice that this transition would take place “today” – not after a prolonged period of time or after a number of good deeds. He was instantly taken to heaven as a forgiven and redeemed believer in Christ’s work. Also, notice that the Lord’s presence is promised; He said, “You shall be with Me.” The thief would not be welcomed by a patriarch, but by the Lord Himself.
As a result, we now enjoy absolute assurance that every true believer follows that same pathway when death occurs. Jesus Christ has the keys of death and hades, as He announced in Revelation 1:18. Now we can say with the apostle Paul, “Absent from the body … present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Christians who die are considered to be “those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Th. 4:14) as they await the resurrection of their bodies.
Even greater, in the Christian era we are awaiting the Lord’s return from heaven. As one has said, “We aren’t looking for the undertaker but the uppertaker!” Second Corinthians 5:1-4 shows that death is like being “unclothed” and emphasizes that there is something more to anticipate. Rather than being unclothed, we want to be “further clothed” by the immortal bodies prepared by God for us. At Christ’s coming, our lowly bodies will be transformed to be like His glorious body. This will be much better than passing through death, and it should be the hope of every Christian (Phil. 3:20-21). Although a few individual believers knew they would pass through death (Paul, 2 Tim. 4:6; Peter, 2 Pet. 1:14), we can all anticipate the imminent, any-moment return of the Lord.
HOW TO LIVE NOW
No doctrine of the Bible is intended to be merely informational. God does not want us only to have the facts about heaven and hell; He wants us to live in a way that shows our understanding of their reality. One appropriate response would be the fear of hell. For unbelievers, it is correct to be afraid! The word “hell” has been so misused as a curse word, that its dreadfulness has very little impact on most people. Yet the suffering of an unbelieving soul commences immediately after death, as we saw in the story of the rich man.
What is more, God has revealed His ultimate plans for the end of the world, when even death and hades, as enemies of God, will be removed from existence and thrown into a “lake of fire and brimstone” – the final destination of the Devil, his servants, and all those not listed in God’s Book of Life (Rev. 20:10,14,15). If the rich man thought he was suffering in hades’ flame, how much worse will be the intense, eternal suffering in a lake of fire! The Lord Jesus called it gehenna, the word used for “hell” in Mark 9:43-48 and a few other passages. It is a place of incomparable darkness, where sinners are constantly weeping and wailing in agony, where the worm of decay and the fire of torment are unending. It is a place which even the demons themselves, who know their destiny, wish to avoid as long as possible (Mt. 8:29).
If you have any anxiety about whether you might awake in hell’s suffering after death, review again the awful permanence of hell and the lake of fire. God has prepared that everlasting fire for the devil and his fallen angels (Mt. 25:41). But those who reject God’s mercy, which comes by Jesus Christ, will ultimately die in their own sins and bring the same judgment upon themselves.
Yet there is deliverance! God offers you repentance at the cross, complete forgiveness from your sins. Even He, who demands that sin be removed from His presence, says: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11).
Christians, too, should be affected by the fearfulness of hell. Because of the terror of the Lord’s judgment, we ought to persuade others to turn to Him, as if we were plucking them right out of the fire of His judgment before it is too late (Jude 23). If some know how to escape a burning building, is it not shameful for them to save only themselves without warning others?
Yet Christians have an even stronger motivation than the fear of hell – the hope of heaven, promised through God’s free grace to all who come to Him. That hope helps us set our priorities, because of treasures in heaven and the joy of our Lord (Mt. 6:19-21; 25:21); it helps us endure suffering, for a time of rest is coming (2 Th. 1:7); and it anchors our souls, so our Christian experience can be as steadfast as the heavenly position of Christ Himself (Heb. 6:18-20). Jesus promised us a place in His Father’s house where we can enjoy the absence of sorrow and the presence of the Lord forever (Jn. 14:2-3).
While we wait, we can serve the Lord with faithfulness and joy. Paul would have loved to be in heaven, because, he wrote, “to depart and be with Christ … is far better.” Yet he realized that every day on earth meant one more day to serve Him by helping lost souls know Him and fellow believers follow Him. To Paul, this was such a difficult choice that he didn’t know which to choose (Phil. 1:23-25). Imagine having such a relationship with the Lord that we aren’t just holding on until we get to heaven, but are actively enjoying every day, knowing it is one more chance to make Him known to others.
It would be good to consider one more term related to heaven, and important for Christians – the concept of “heavenly places,” also translated “high places” or “the heavenlies.” This is especially emphasized in the book of Ephesians. Christ is seated in these heavenly places, but God has also “made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:20; 2:6). Because God has so intimately identified us with Christ, we can already live out the heavenly character of Christianity while still on earth.
Heaven and hell, though unseen, are as real as the Word of God. Knowledge of hell should move us to a genuine relationship with a Redeemer God. The hope of heaven should cause us to live here with heaven’s values in view. No matter what our level of Christian maturity is, we can imitate the Thessalonians, who had turned to God to “wait for His Son from heaven” (1 Th. 1:10).
By Stephen Campbell
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org