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What does the Bible say about Heaven and Hell?

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Question:  What does the Bible say about Heaven and Hell?

Response:  Your question is, in some respects, the question, because it is another way of asking about what Tillich called "the ultimate concern", that is, death, its aftermath, and its consequences.

As I believe I may have said before, there is much in the popular view of what Christianity may be that understands these things from a cultural perspective, not a biblical one. What I mean by that is there are many preconceptions about heaven and hell abroad in our collective cultural understanding that are flat wrong, or, to put it another way not biblical (in my view, that is one and the same thing, but even those who do not accept the Bible's authority have to admit that many things people take for granted about heaven and hell are not in the Bible). The sources of misinformation are many. Some of the prime culprits are the Apocrypha, Dante, medieval church doctrine, medieval art, and myth, fancy and story-telling in general. Sometimes these can be traced to a grain of truth in scripture. For example, Peter at the pearly gates scrutinizing those who enter: well, there are gates in the new Jerusalem, they are made of pearl, and they all have foundation stones inscribed with one of the apostles names (so there is one cornerstone with Peter's name). However, the New Jerusalem will be on earth, it has twelve gates, and there is no indication that Peter (or any apostle) is to be found standing there vetting the entrants. By the time the new Jerusalem appears, all judgment is over, and only the righteous are left in the new heavens and new earth (see Rev.20-22).

This is a potentially large topic, since one might address the whole realm of theology in answering in detail how it is that a person comes to be in heaven as opposed to hell, so I will try to keep my answer within some bounds - please feel free to ask further about any of the following points:

1. The words heaven and hell: Heaven and hell are English words, neither of which ties in directly with Hebrew or Greek roots, so that what we mean by them is very much dependent upon how we use them. Heaven is generally reserved in biblical translations for the Hebrew shamayim (skies, pl.) and Greek ouranos (used in both sing. and pl.). Hell most generally translates the Hebrew sheol and the Greek geenna (a transliteration of another Hebrew word). In each case, the Greek is picking up on the Hebrew concept/vocabulary (geenna < gehena being a synonym for sheol). Hebrew is a very earthy language in its descriptive method, and that characteristic is quite clear from the two root words here, for sheol is most commonly felt to mean "the grave" (i.e., the literal earth below), while shamayim is most commonly felt to mean "the sky" (i.e., the literal atmosphere above). It is clear from more detailed descriptions of ethereal things (e.g., Is.6) and infernal things (e.g., Is.14) that a very real "heaven" and a very real "hell" stand behind these graphic symbols. That impression is solidified by New Testament expansion of these themes.

    see: Sheol

    and: The Seven Edens

2. The current heaven and hell: From the point of view of interested parties (i.e., you and I and the whole human family), everyone, in the teaching of the Bible, will end up in one of these two places. That is to say, there is no "oblivion" in the biblical teaching of these doctrines. For there will be a resurrection of both the wicked and the righteous (Dan.12:2; cf. Is.26:19; Jn.5:28-29; Rev.20). But even before this eschatological finality, there is no "soul sleep" - the righteous dead go to "heaven" immediately after death, while the unrighteous dead go to "hell". Heaven and hell are the respective accommodations made by God for mankind after death (following our ejection from paradise). It is one of these two places that we shall await the Kingdom of Heaven and the coming of the New Jerusalem (for those who choose for God in this life), or the final consignment to the lake of fire (for those who choose against God in this life). Hades, another Greek term used for the subterranean place of torments where the unbelieving dead now find themselves, is described as being below the earth (e.g., it is often referred to as "the pit"). This is a place of suffering (cf. Lk.16:19-31), and remains to this the day the abode of the unsaved dead until the time of the last judgment (Rev.20). On the other hand, until Christ's victory at the cross, and until His resurrection, ascension to God's temple in heaven, and session at the Father's right hand, the saved dead were also taken to a subterranean venue, variously known as "Abraham's bosom" or "paradise" (Lk.16:22; 23:43).

After these wondrous events (which mark the conjunction of all the ages from God's point of view), the saved dead have been taken to "heaven" (by which we mean the "third heaven" or the place of God's heavenly temple: cf. Rev.7:9-17). Other than our Lord, no one has yet been resurrected (cf. 1Cor.15:23-24), so that the bodies now occupied by the saved and unsaved dead in heaven and hell respectively are only temporary, interim accommodations, just as the present heaven and hell are temporary.

    see: The Earthly Tabernacle and Temple as a Type of the Heavenly Temple

3. The ultimate heaven and hell: The original dwelling place of God was the earth (cf. Is.14; Ezek.28). His heavenly temple or tabernacle is a temporary abode occupied to keep separation between His holiness and the universe profaned by the devil's revolt. Ultimately, however, the present heaven and earth will be burned to nothing and replaced with the new heavens and the new earth (2Pet.3:10-13; Rev.21:1). This event follows immediately on the heels of the final phase of the resurrection, and the last judgment of the unsaved dead and their subsequent consignment to the lake of fire (Matt.25:41; Rev.20:10). But while the unsaved dead will be deposited in this burning lake forevermore, the home of the righteous resurrected to eternal life will be in the New Jerusalem, the city "whose architect and builder is God" (Heb.11:10; cf. Heb.13:14), and whose location will be on the earth, that is, the New Earth (Rev.21-22; cf. Heb.12:22-23).

    see: Judgment III: the Great White Throne and the Lake of Fire

4. The basis of disposition: A point that is often missed in such discussions as these is that from the point of view of someone who truly loves God, loves Jesus more than self, more than life, the worst thing about hell/hades/the lake of fire is not the heat or the pain or the darkness (terrible as these things will be), but the fact that those so entombed will be separated from God, from Christ forevermore. This is nothing more than fitting since the basis for their condemnation is, essentially, their lack of desire to have anything to do with God and His Son while they lived - not only a one-time decision, but a mind-set which they demonstrated to be firmly fixed and deliberately chosen over an entire life-time. On the other hand, for those who have loved God, love their Savior His Son more than this world, the best thing about heaven/paradise/the New Jerusalem will not be the glorious new bodies, the reward, or the splendors of the eternal city (wonderful as these things will be), but the intimate fellowship we will enjoy with Him who bought us for all eternity. This is also most fitting since the basis for our election is, essentially, our desire to know Him, love Him and serve Him beyond everything else while we yet live - not a one-time decision, but a genuine, deep commitment which we demonstrate to be firmly fixed and deliberate through the choices of a life-time.

Jesus Christ is the issue in all of this. He is the door through which we pass or from which we turn away (Jn.10:1-18). He is the only way to eternal life (Jn.14:6). He is the only path that leads upward (Matt.7:13-15). By committing our lives, our selves to Him, by believing in Him, His Person, human and divine, and His work, the ransom He paid for us by His death on the cross, and by demonstrating through our continuing faith that we mean what have said, we enter and abide in fellowship with Him and the Father now, and confidently anticipate the redemption of our bodies at that future time. We hope, confidently hope, for an eternity with Him who gave up everything He had so that we might be forgiven, so that we might be saved, so that we might be with Him and His Father, our Father, forever.

And having led [Paul and Silas] outside, he said, "Sirs, What must I do in order to be saved?" And they said to him, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your whole household."
Acts 16:30-31

Here are some other important, related links:

What is Heaven like according to Christian Teachings?

Heavenly Things.

Last Things:  The Millennium and the New Jerusalem (CT 6)

Please let me know if you would like me to expand on any of the material above. I would be more than happy to do so.

Bob L.


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