Heaven and hell – what are they? Though various concepts of the afterlife are prevalent throughout different cultures and belief systems, most have a line of demarcation between the destination for those who are “good” and follow certain guidelines and those who are “evil” and do not. How are we to understand this line? Why must there be a line? What are heaven and hell anyway?
Pop culture sees these concepts in a subtly warped manner. Heaven is seen as a spiritual banquet in a peaceful and ethereal place in the sky that allows the good people to relax in peace and enjoy the light and bright scenery. Now, most people think of themselves as good, and so expect to go to heaven. Hell is alternatively seen as a literal subterranean lake of fire where the wicked enjoy their wickedness with one another and do as they please, and where Satan reigns supreme. Most people think that only the most dramatically evil among us will be sent to hell; people like Stalin, Hitler, mass murderers, etc. Though pop culture has done its part to distort the true understanding of the realities of heaven and hell, we have to be more pragmatic in our assessment of these destinations and test our assumptions.
We should ask some foundational questions about heaven and hell. Why do they exist in the first place? Why should there be one place of eternal happiness and another for eternal punishment? How does God decide who goes where? Does God really send people to hell or does He simply save those who were headed there, to begin with? Is there something we can do to gain His favor, or better yet, why can’t everyone just go to heaven? What’s the point of hell anyway?
What’s the Point of Heaven and Hell Anyway?
We all want happiness. Thus, it’s safe to assume that at the outset, not having considered much more about these destinations, we’d choose heaven over hell simply because it’s understood to be a far more pleasant reality. We must at the outset reaffirm that God is “good.” He is the very essence of goodness and goodness is an essential part of His nature. Therefore, though He created the potential for evil, God cannot be evil or do evil. To claim otherwise would cause a whole slew of issues, including the very nature and purpose of our universe as well as mistrust in our moral order and our conscience. This we must put to bed at the outset. God is entirely good. He would not create a hell because He loves to see people suffer. He does not enjoy the eternal torment of souls, and this is clearly visible in the person of Jesus Christ and the testimony of His followers, “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
So why would God create a hell? If God loves all of us, why not just send us all to heaven? It is true that God’s love is supreme. However, love cannot live on its own. When you love someone, you would want what’s best for him or her, and sometimes you may have to let the person undergo some discomfort for the ultimate greater good. In addition, love without the control of justice would be problematic. If you leave out justice, you will find yourself compromising the moral law. What kind of respect would we have for an authority that simply loves without holding responsible those who break his rules? And there must also be an acknowledgment of the laws and of the lawgiver.
God loves us and extends His hand. It is up to us to extend our own and accept the invitation. Every relationship wherein love blossoms, whether it be parental, congenial or romantic in nature, must be two-sided. If God extends His hand and we do not follow with our own, we are alienating ourselves from His love and goodness. And even when rejected, God graciously makes provisions for those who do not want Him. This is the very essence of hell – it is an eternal ontological separation from God. If we do not know God and do not care to know Him, He is not going to force us to dwell in His presence for eternity.
What is Hell?
Now, the largest myth in pop culture is that people are largely on neutral ground and will be judged by God for their deeds when they die. This is, however, sadly not the case. Humanity has in a sense already been alienated from God and simply awaits that judgment. In other words, we are not on a neutral ground walking in the middle of the road, but, having been alienated from God, are marching towards an eternity away from Him, namely hell. The only way to heaven is by knowing Him personally through our genuine repentance. Heaven is, as it were, a wonderful castle sitting in the midst of the most horrid wilderness. Outside the castle is all of hell, and there is nothing but desolation, darkness and utter torment. God, being the most gracious of all hosts, is willing to let all into His kingdom, but we must first acknowledge Him as King and give Him our heart with genuine humility and love. Then and only then will He lower the drawbridge to welcome us into His presence. Anything short of this leaves us outside of heaven.
The specifics of hell’s environment are secondary. The fundamental reality of hell is separation from God, and before we move on too quickly, let’s make sure we understand that this separation would, in and of itself, be a torment, because, though we fail to see it now, God does play a big role in our lives through His grace and goodness, which would all be absent in hell. It is true that hell includes punishment laid on creatures for disobedience to God’s moral law, but separation from God is the fundamental reality of the torment of hell and it is the worst torment of all.
This separation is the ultimate punishment of hell. The absence of God’s goodness may not be understood in this life, because we are swimming in it and don’t know what life would be like without it. In hell, this absence will be actualized and the torment will be realized, and it will a thing most unexpectedly shocking.
What is Heaven?
When we think of heaven, we think of comfort, enjoyment, and peace. But the greatest thing about heaven is the presence of God. Heaven will be a place of eternal goodness, the likes of which we have never experienced and therefore can not possibly imagine. For now, the details are wrapped in the enigma of that experience. All that may be possible to say and should be said is that heaven will be a reality within God’s presence, which brings with it all the goodness possible.
God speaks to our conscience and gives us the road to find Him, His love and salvation that will lead us to heaven. He gives us enough light to find Him and follow Him but thinks us so precious that He will ultimately respect our will and do as we like. As C. S. Lewis put it,
“Either we say to God ‘Thy will be done’ or in the end He says to us, ‘Thy will be done.'” ILewis, C. S., The Great Divorce (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) 75.
Either we acknowledge God, believe in Him and live according to His will, or He allows us to live according to ours apart from His love and goodness. A heaven for those who do not like God and do not want Him would be a far worse hell than the real hell. Imagine a person who does not like opera being forced to sit in the front row of an opera house, where he is forced to watch La Bohème indefinitely.
Is It Possible Not to Have Hell?
Considering the aforementioned, the only possible way there could be no hell would be if everyone loved God and wanted to be in His presence. But having already considered how important it is for us to have free will, this too would be possible only if we were preprogrammed. The only way to have no hell would be to have a world without free will and subsequently without love, and this can hardly be argued to be a better solution. In retrospect, the vilest of all realities in hell is an essential aspect of the greatest of all goodness in heaven.
The Bible gives us analogies and depictions of hell that are nothing short of horrendous. Some of us assume that hell would simply be a place where we can freely express all the pleasures of our bodies that are supposedly held captive by moral confines, and subsequently, hell is sometimes thought not to be such a bad place – a party land of sorts. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The freedoms we enjoy today, even in rebellion against God’s moral order, are because of His patience. The truth is that no matter how far away and uninvolved we think God is, He is always there, sustaining us in ways we can not detect or comprehend. He is protecting us like a parent protects his children. And God’s so good at it that we don’t even know He’s doing it. It is somewhat like a foggy road we chose to walk. The more we traverse it, the more of the road is revealed to us.
We are, at the outset, under the impression that we deserve to live lives completely apart from God, free on our own to do as we wish, and for the most part, we can attain this freedom, but at the greatest cost imaginable. We do not understand God’s grace. As pastor John MacArthur eloquently explains,
“People think it is their right to live… But it’s not our right to live; it is God’s grace that gives us life. When God allows a startling and dramatic tragedy to occur, don’t question His fairness. Instead, thank Him for His grace.” IIMacArthur, John, Truth Endures (Panorama City, CA: Grace to You, 2009) 262.
God’s grace and patience allow us to live and we get used to His mercy. We become so used to it that we get good at abusing it.
Heaven is Coming. Are You Ready?
God, providing the apostle John with a vision of the future, allows John to write what he sees and hears,
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'” (Rev. 21:3-4).
Heaven and hell will not be ethereal places with spirits flying all around. They will be in a real sense a physical and tangible, yet very different, reality, with souls reuniting with their bodies and facing judgment. Those who accept God will be given bodies similar to that of Christ after His resurrection: physical but glorified by God’s power. I invite those who are still skeptical of all of this to delve into the details and find the God who wants to be known to your mind and your heart.