Heaven and Hell – some thoughts

  • Note from Jon: The 14-16 year olds in my church have identified topics they want teaching on. I was asked to talk about heaven and hell. This was my ‘take’ on it.

    One of the first things I learned from the book ‘How to Draw Cartoons’ was how to draw a stereotype. A man wearing a stripy jumper, an eye mask and a big sack marked ‘swag’ was a burglar. A man in the same stripy jumper, wearing a beret, with a big moustache, a baguette under one arm, and a string of onions was obviously a French guy.

    In real life, people don’t dress like that. But the point of cartoons is to give you an easily identifiable stereotype that sets the scene.

    It’s actually the same with what we think about heaven, whether it’s cartoons, films, TV shows, adverts, whatever. The visual clues that are used are often the same: haloes, clouds, dead people with wings wearing robes and playing harps, or perhaps the pearly gates.

    Similarly when we think of hell we think of flames in an underground cavern and little demons running round torturing the damned; with maybe the devil sat on a throne and so on.

    When we think of heaven or hell many of these ideas pop into our head. They make both heaven and a hell a bit less believable and a bit more ridiculous and sometimes we might even doubt whether we want to spend eternity bored out of our skulls floating on some fluffy cloud somewhere.

    But what is heaven? One theologian summed it up as the place where God fully makes known his presence to bless human beings. The place where God dwells is heaven and that’s the place where he is worshipped. 

    Actually the term heaven is used quite rarely in the Bible. The phrase most used is ‘eternal life’, but it is generally felt that this eternal life will take place somewhere different to where we are now.

    Throughout the Bible reference is made to a new heaven and a new earth. We often miss out the last bit and think that it’s just about going to heaven when we die, but the Biblical idea is that the whole of creation is going to be renewed and there is going to be some major differences. The first one of these is that there will no longer be a separation between heaven and earth.

    In the book of Revelation, John, the man having the visions, sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth (chapter 21). The old barriers have passed away and heaven and earth are now united. This twin renewal of heaven and earth is also found in the Old Testament book of Isaiah (see chapter 65, verse 17) and in 2 Peter chapter 3, verse 13.

    Point 1: Heaven is centred on God.
    John’s vision of the New Jerusalem includes the idea that God is right there, in the centre, viewed by everybody, worshipped by everyone, and because God is there in all His glory, the sun and the moon are made completely redundant. Everything takes place illuminated by God’s glory (Revelation chapters 21-22).

    John says that he did not see a Temple in the New Jerusalem. The Jerusalem of his time was, of course, centred on the Temple. This was the place, according to Jewish thought, where God actually chose to meet with human beings – in the Holy of Holies in the centre of the Temple.

    John’s vision of the New Jerusalem does away with all that. God is central. God is visible. God is right there! And ‘the saints’ are there too, worshipping God (see also Jude verse 24).

    Point 2: There is no sin –or effect of sin – in heaven.
    We often think of sin as being naughty and doing things we’re not meant to do. While that plays a part, sin is much deeper than that.
    Sin is about rebellion, about thinking we know better than God, that we can do things our own way. We’re told that sin leads to destruction. Jesus uses the word ‘gehenna’, which is often translated as hell, but was the name of a rubbish dump outside the city of Jerusalem, which was permanently on fire, burning up the rubbish that was tipped onto it every day.
    One way of understanding sin’s destructive power is understand the idea that God continues to sustain the world in existence. God did not just wind up the clockwork toy and let it run on. The Christian view of God is of an active God, involved in creation – this happens before human beings begin to sin. There is a great image in Genesis of God walking with Adam in the cool of the evening, interacting with the world God had created.

    Human sin wrecked all that and did so because when we go our own way or rely on something other than God (be it money or fame or whatever), we stop placing our trust in God and place it in something else. We actively stop looking to God as the reason and point of our existence.

    Yet all creation owes its existence to God; without God’s intervention nothing outside God would exist.

    When we ‘sin’ we choose to rely on something – anything – that does not have the power to sustain our existence.

    This means that to ‘sin’, to rebel against God, is to effectively choose non-existence. That is why sin leads to ‘destruction’.

    This then leads us onto thinking about hell because one of the biggest questions about hell is ‘Why does God send people to hell to suffer for all eternity’.

    It helps to turn this on its head and say ‘What is the effect of someone choosing to live in a way other than in relationship with God?’ Effectively that choice means they choose ‘non-existence’.

    But God is merciful. It seems a stretch to say that hell exists because God is merciful because we have this idea that people will be tortured for eternity, so why would I say that the existence of hell is evidence of God’s mercy?

    I believe that in his mercy God says ‘okay, you don’t want to live in relationship with me, then that’s fine’ – now at that point what should happen? We should cease to exist.

    But God allows human beings to continue to exist even though they have decided to cut themselves off from God – we call that place Hell.

    Some of the words used to describe hell in the New Testament are ‘a place of darkness’; a place of torment; a place where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth; and in a parable that Jesus tells it’s a place where there is a vast chasm between the person in hell and the person in heaven. Often the term used for those who don’t gain eternal life is ‘destruction’

    Those terms all sound pretty bad, but they can all be self-inflicted. Let’s take darkness – why is that used to describe hell? Well, God is the creator of light – Jesus is the light of the world, so there is a parallel between being with God in the light and not being with God in the dark. But equally, darkness is often used to describe people who persist in their sinful ways and do not try to live the way God wants. Darkness is a choice – there’s a phrase that ‘there are none so blind as those who will not see’.

    Similarly ‘torment’ can be self-inflicted. I often replay conversations I  have where I have said something stupid and embarrassing and I think ‘oh I wish I hadn’t done that’ – sometimes we torment ourselves with missed opportunities, bitterness, regret – I think that’s where the ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ comes from – the regret people may come to feel about being separated from God.

    Hell is therefore the place of destruction – that is what would happen to people who were cut off from God, except that God prevents that happening in an act of mercy- but still not a good place to be. Why? Because without God there can be no ‘light’ – no hope for the future – no hope of anything better.

    There is a chasm between hell and heaven because human sin cannot co-exist with God.

    In Heaven the effects of sin no longer exist. Revelation chapter 21, verse 3 says: “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.”

    The wonderful vision of Heaven we have as a place we are aiming for is of a place that is centred on God, where there is no sin or effects of sin.

    Point 3: Heaven starts here. So does Hell.
    There is a letter written by Paul to the Christians in Philippi, a Roman colony situated in Greece. The inhabitants of Philippi were very proud of the fact that they were automatically Roman citizens. If you were a Philippian, you were a Roman citizen, with all the attendant rights and status that brought.

    When Paul writes to them he knows they are Roman citizens, but instead he tells them their  “citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians chapter 3, verse 20). They are no longer citizens of Rome – they have already attained their eternal citizenship and so their lives should be very different right now.

    Similarly if people choose to live their lives without God then they are already living a life of destruction – everything they put their mind to and put their effort into will pass away. Whereas those who choose to live God’s way store up ‘treasures in heaven’ that are eternal (see Matthew chapter 6, verse 20).

    We have a choice to live in certain ways and the way we live now prepares us either for eternity or for destruction – we can either live in a way that will have eternal relevance or that will disappear from this earth when we do.

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