Heaven and Hell

DID YOU HEAR about heaven and hell today? Not an everyday topic of conversation, but perhaps you heard someone describing a ‘heavenly’ cake. Or maybe you overheard a scene of chaos described as ‘all hell breaking loose’. They crop up more often than we might think.

In fact, heaven and hell feature in art from early times, through Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ and Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ through to the many pop and rock music titles which feature them. More seriously, heaven and hell feature in myths, folklore and religions around the world, from ancient times to the modern day.

What do they really mean? And do they matter to us today?

The Bible is the Authority

We turn to the Bible for these answers because it has true authority—it is the Word of God. It makes clear and consistent claims that this is the case. Many of the Old Testament prophecies open with ‘The word of the Lord…’ (for example Micah 1:1) and follow with a precise time stamp, who spoke the prophecy and to whom. The New Testament makes the same statement: ‘No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’ (2 Peter 1:20–21).

We can believe these claims, because the Bible gives evidence to support them. One type is information it contains, which was not known by men and women at the time. For example, hygiene through hand washing featured in the Law of Moses, about 1500 bc. It was only in 1846–7 that this was recognised by Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor in Vienna Hospital.

The Bible also makes detailed prophecies which have been fulfilled as described, days, years or centuries later. People cannot foretell the future, so these must have been inspired by God. They include prophecy about nations, such as Israel, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and many others. And the life of Jesus was foretold across the Old Testament, including his birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection.

For these reasons, and many more, we can turn to the Bible to learn about heaven and hell.

Hell is the Grave

It’s worth considering the words that translated from the Bible’s original languages into English as ‘hell’, because sometimes the translators left them as they are, which can be confusing. The Old Testament (Hebrew) word is ‘sheol’, which means ‘covered’ or ‘place of dead’. It’s translated equally as ‘grave’ and ‘hell’, and occasionally ‘pit’. The New Testament (Greek) has two words. The main one is ‘hades’, or ‘place of the dead’. It is also translated as both ‘hell’ and ‘grave’. The other word is ‘Gehenna’ which refers to the Valley of Hinnom, a rubbish tip outside Jerusalem which was kept permanently on fire to reduce the risk of disease. Jesus used this word on a few occasions to tell people that, if they didn’t get right with God, that was where they may as well end up!

More importantly than the dictionary definitions, we can see that the Bible treats ‘hell’ and ‘the grave’ as one and the same. Here are some examples where they are used in parallel:

Feeling hopeless: ‘Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend together into the dust?” (Job 17:16).

Speaking of the King of Babylon: ‘You are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit’ (Isaiah 14:15).

Speaking of the Jewish rulers: ‘You have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we have an agreement”’ (Isaiah 28:15).

To find out about what death or hell is like, read Ecclesiastes 9:1–10. We learn that everyone, good or bad, dies. And death is simply complete unconsciousness, as summarised in verses 5–6:

The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and for ever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

In case we have any doubt, we read of God- fearing men expecting to go to hell, or the grave, such as Jacob (Genesis 44:29) and David (Psalm 18:5). We can safely take it then that the same applies to everyone—at death we cease to exist.

Heaven is Where God Lives

Speaking or reading about heaven, we do need to be aware of the context. Just as in English, ‘heaven’ in the Bible can mean ‘sky’ (where the birds fly and where rain comes from) or what we can see of space (where the stars are). The word is also sometimes used of things associated with God, such as ‘heavenly things’. For example, the ‘Kingdom of God’ means the same as the ‘Kingdom of heaven’, and they are used in parallel (for an example see Matthew 13:24 and Mark 4:26). They mean the same thing: God’s Kingdom, which will be on earth.

Here are some examples of how heaven is described:

God is in heaven and you are on earth (Ecclesiastes 5:2).

He looked down from his holy height; from heaven the Lord looked at the earth (Psalm 102:19).

Listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive (1 Kings 8:30).

[God] alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see (1 Timothy 6:16).

No human can go there or see God Himself, but His angels are there, although they also come to earth, as God’s messengers working on His behalf. Jesus said this: ‘See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 18:10).

What is the Good News?

‘Glad Tidings’ means ‘good news’, and sharing it is the purpose of this magazine. So where is the good news here? It is clear that we all die and none of us go to heaven.

The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth he has given to the children of man. The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence (Psalm 115:16–17).

The good news lies in the one exception— the Lord Jesus Christ. Although human and able to sin, he never did. So when he died, God raised him from the dead, as we read in all four Gospels, Acts and the rest of the New Testament. It is shown to us in a great speech by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2—you can read verses 14–41 for the full story. Here we will pick out the main points.

  • Jesus went to hell—and back Verses 25–28 quote Psalm 16:8–11. David was prophesying about the death and resurrection of Jesus, and Peter explains in v. 31 that even Jesus went to Hades (hell) when he died! This was simply the grave, and he came out of Hades when he rose from the dead (v. 32).
  • Jesus is now in heaven and will return Peter reminds us that even David didn’t go to heaven (vs. 29, 34) and neither did anyone else. The great exception is Jesus (vs. 34–6) who did go to heaven 40 days after his resurrection (see Acts 1:9–12). As Peter hints and the angels promised, Jesus is also going to come back. When he does so, it will be to set up the Kingdom of God.

The Great Victory

1 Corinthians was written by a different follower of Jesus, the Apostle Paul. Chapter 15 is known as the great ‘resurrection’ chapter, where Paul shows the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, and the hope that we too can be raised from the dead. In verses 51–57 he uses majestic language to describe the prospect of being raised from the dead and made immortal, never more to die. He concludes:

O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?… But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (vs. 55–57).

This can give us great comfort and hope, if we choose to follow Jesus. Hell is nothing more than the grave. Heaven is where God lives, with Jesus and the angels. Jesus is going to return to the earth to set up God’s Kingdom—a perfect world here on earth, with no poverty, injustice, disease or death. So if we die, then we will simply be unconscious. If we embrace the hope of the Bible, repent of our sins and are baptised, and embark on a new life of service to God, we have the prospect of being in God’s Kingdom here on earth.

So let’s echo the Lord’s prayer: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:9–10).

Andrew Hale

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