Kingdom: What does Scripture teach about Heaven and Hell?
Most people don’t know much about Heaven, and what they think is often just plain wrong. Based upon some bad religious art on the Sistine Chapel, the average person thinks of Heaven as the boring place where we’re all chubby babies sitting on clouds wearing diapers plunking harps for all eternity pretending that we like it.
Satan got kicked out of Heaven and he’s been bitter ever since. He came to Heaven on earth, Eden, to get humanity kicked out of Heaven as well. Ever since, Satan has undertaken an incredibly effective fake news campaign to misrepresent Heaven and Hell and encourage folks to seek to create their own little heaven on earth without God. We all seek to be happy and healthy, and that should lead us to God and Heaven rather than Satan and rebellion.
According to the Bible, there is one reality ruled by God over two realms. One realm is the spirit world where God, divine beings (including angels), and departed saints live right now. The other realm is the physical world where human beings live right now.
Originally, these two realms were connected. The Garden of Eden in Genesis was literally Heaven on earth where the unseen realm and seen realm connected. This explains why Adam and Eve met with God there, were not shocked when a divine being showed up (Satan), and saw an angel keep them from the Tree of Life once they sinned. Once we sinned, the realms were disconnected. So, upon death, the two parts of our being are also disconnected. Our body goes into the ground awaiting resurrection. Our soul goes to be with God.
The apostle Paul says this is “far better” than our current life on earth and all we have is “gain” to look forward to “at home with the Lord”. [FOOTNOTE: 2 Cor. 5:8; Php. 1:21-23.] So, if someone loves Jesus and dies today, they are with Jesus in the spiritual heaven. That, however, is not their final destination. When Jesus returns to earth, He brings Heaven to earth with Him to restore things to how they were before sin entered the world. Those who love Jesus will rise from the dead to live forever in their body on the earth plus Heaven. Far too many people think of Heaven only in terms of the intermediate spiritual state, and not the earthy physical reality that God has planned for all eternity.
Right now, Heaven exists in the unseen realm and is just as real as the world we occupy in the seen realm. Much like a Zoom call, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John all got to communicate with Heaven and see what was happening there. For example, Revelation 6:9-11 says, “I saw…the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer…”
The departed Christians right now are consciously aware of what is happening both in Heaven and on earth. Additionally, they communicate with God and one another. This is an amazing insight.
Even more amazing is that people whose soul is with God, and whose body is in the ground on earth, are given clothes to wear – namely white robes. This seems to indicate that they have physical bodies of some kind.
We tend to think of Heaven as a solely spiritual place without any physical bodies. But we know that there is at least one person in the unseen realm of the spiritual Heaven right now in a body – Jesus Christ. [FOOTNOTE: Acts 1:11.] Also, we know that Enoch and Elijah in the Bible never died and were taken into Heaven still alive, which would put the total of people in bodies in Heaven right now at three or more. Additionally, when Moses and Elijah came down to visit with Jesus and Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, they seemed to show up in bodies. This leaves open at least the possibility that a believer in Jesus Christ who dies could occupy a temporary body of some kind until they raise from death in their eternal body.
When we think of Heaven, we need to stop thinking about leaving this planet and instead think about what it will be like when Jesus’ prayer is answered, and the Kingdom of Heaven comes to earth and God’s will is done from one end of the cosmos to the other. God does not abandon His design plan from creation. God will not be defeated, dissuaded, or distracted. God remains focused on going back to where He started and sticking with His plan to have human life flourishing on earth and ruled by Heaven which comes to earth.
Even though we change, and Heaven and earth change, God does not change, and God does not change His plan for His people and His planet. This explains why the Bible uses lots of words like restore, redeem, resurrect, renew etc. Acts 3:21 looks forward to “the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets”. God will go back to where He started to lift the curse, sentence Satan, raise the dead, and make the realm of Eden in the unseen world visible in the seen realm of earth. He will overtake and liberate all that has been cursed by our sin to be cured by His Son.
The analogy that Paul uses for life as we experience it right now is childbirth. We’ve never met a woman who likes the process of childbirth. We’ve met many women who love the child they birthed. For this Christian, this life of screaming, weeping, stressing, and pushing is our version of birth where God will bring new beautiful and worthwhile life on the other side. Like childbirth, this painful process is worth the new life birthed on the other side of all the pain. For the Christian, this frames our love for Heaven and infuses our present pain with incredible meaning as one day we will have the same joy as a new mom holding her baby.
Right now, there is a place called Heaven that exists in the unseen realm. Living there are God, divine beings including angels, and departed saints who loved Jesus in their life on earth. When you die, you go there to be with them if you love Jesus. Theologians call this the “intermediate heaven”.
One day, maybe in hours or centuries, Jesus Christ will return to this sin-cursed, tear-soaked world with Heaven as the King and everyone and everything in His Kingdom make the big move to earth. Just as Jesus brought Heaven and earth together at His first coming, He will bring the New Heaven and New Earth together at His Second Coming. [FOOTNOTE: Isa. 65:17; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-3]
For the Christian, dying is really just moving. Like any move, it’s important to do some research so you can prepare yourself for your new home, get directions (which is basically following Jesus who is the way home) and pushing through the hassles of this life to move to your Forever Home in Heaven.
There are six ways that the Bible describes Heaven: a Sabbath, a Kingdom, City, Home, Garden, and Party. For starters, you will need to use your imagination. When we are kids, it seems we can think in creative and faith-filled categories a lot easier than adults do, “The disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’” [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 18:1-3.]
Jesus is clear – to get ready for Heaven, you need a childlike faith. Childish faith is immature, irresponsible, and weak. Childlike faith is simple and strong trusting the Father who is good for His promises.
Heaven is a Sabbath
Everyone wants Heaven. Not everyone wants God. The context of Hebrews 4 is that some folks had faith in God, and they would enjoy the eternal rest of Heaven. Others, sadly, wanted Heaven but not God and are spoken of in terms of “fall” and “disobedience”. The same is sadly true today. The truth is Heaven is not just a place, it’s also a person named Jesus. Apart from Jesus, there is no place like Heaven. Apart from Jesus, no one makes it to the real Heaven.
Hebrews 4 reflects back on the Exodus. There, Joshua and Caleb, acting like the president and vice president, are leading the people from Egypt to the Promised Land. [FOOTNOTE: Numbers 14:24,30.] Having been in Egypt for over 400 years, they became slaves and had not had a day off for maybe generations. God supernaturally delivered them with plagues, death, a parted sea, and manna food delivered daily. A nation of perhaps a few million, they wandered in the wilderness for some 40 years, grumbling and sick of living a homeless life of walking and camping. Honestly, we’d fare no better.
The author of Hebrews uses the Exodus as an analogy for our life. God supernaturally delivered us through the resurrection of Jesus, defeated our Pharaoh of Satan and slavery to sin, and promises us an eternal home and rest. Yet, here we are stuck wandering around this forsaken planet wondering when we finally get to go Home. The key, Hebrews says, is that we have “faith” in the “good news” about Jesus Christ and keep following God through our desert.
Those who do not understand the real Heaven try to make their version of Heaven on earth in vain. The Israelites who were given the fourth Commandment in Exodus 20 about the Sabbath are spoken of in Hebrews 4. These are the same people who got drunk, had crazy naughty parties, and worshipped a golden calf, which was likely some crazy cult concept that they borrowed from their slavery in Egypt.
In Heaven, we will get to do the same things we enjoy on our Sabbath in this life. There will be sports, music, learning, reading books, art, crafts, swimming, hikes, pets, cooking, parties, baking, solitude, hikes, fishing, gardening, playing games, travel, adventure, surfing, and yes napping just like Jesus who took a nap on the earth to set an example for us on how to Sabbath. Heaven and Earth were together before sin and are rejoined after sin. The same kind of stuff that Adam and Eve got to enjoy before sin entered the world is the same kind of stuff that we will get to enjoy once sin has been ripped from the world.
Heaven is a Kingdom
This world does not need another political party.
This world does not need another political candidate.
This world does not need another election.
This world does not need another theory of government for yet another national experiment.
What this world does need is one benevolent ruler filled with grace – funded with unlimited resources and fueled by the desire to glorify God by doing good for people.
Jesus Christ will return to the earth as King of Kings and establish a Kingdom that never ends. Following Him into this world will be the entire Kingdom of the unseen realm with departed saints and divine beings (including angels) in His wake. [FOOTNOTE: 2 Sam. 7:12-13; Heb. 11:16.]
In the Kingdom of Heaven, no one will be hungry, no one will be homeless, and no one will be helpless.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be no war, no worry, and no weariness.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be no sin, suffering, or shame.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be no tears, trials, or troubles.
In the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be no pollution, politics, or problems.
Everyone who has been frustrated with this world, angry at their government, voted in an election, said something stupid on social media, marched in a protest, signed a petition, or shed a tear really truly wants the Second Coming of Jesus Christ whether they know it or not. This world is the problem. This means the solution has to come from another world into this world. His name is King Jesus.
Heaven is a City
What are the most amazing cities you have traveled to? What cities are on your bucket list to visit some day?
Heaven is the fullness of human ability unleashed once the curse is lifted to live in. The New Jerusalem City of God that comes down from Heaven as a prototype for the kind of cities God welcomes us to build and explore on our planet and beyond it into the galaxies that need to be explored and will be open for human dominion and settling into great global and galactic cities. [FOOTNOTE: Heb. 11:10.] Yes, the Star Trek and Star Wars fans are onto something…
The storyline of the Bible opens with the Garden of Eden (meaning paradise) that is a realm where God and divine beings live and ends with a city coming down from Heaven with the Garden of Eden in that city. Imagine what a perfect city made by God for human flourishing without sin or the curse will be like and you are starting to lean into eternity. In the ancient cities, they were protected by a wall and people had to pass through a gate to enter. You were only allowed to enter if your name was on the list of official residents. The same is true of God’s eternal City of Heaven. If you belong to Jesus Christ, then your name is already written in the Lamb’s book of life. If you have not turned from your sin and trusted in Jesus Christ, then you need to do that right now and become a Christian to have your name added to the eternal guest list in the City of God. [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 21:23-27.]
Heaven is a Home
How many homes have you lived in? What is your favorite home you have ever lived in? If there was one home, or hotel, that you’ve ever seen and could live in, what would it be?
For most people, the biggest investment of our lifetime is our home. The place where we make the most memories, organize the most activities, and celebrate the holidays.
A home is two things – people and a place. On one particularly low day after moving our family to another state, one of our children said they missed “home”. They were looking back to where they used to live and wanted to go back. I asked them if going back to their old house minus their family would still feel like “home”. They said no, because home is both a people and a place. Even if they were in the same place minus the people they call family, it would not be home. Our child was experiencing the same thing that every Christian does in this life. We have left our home in God’s presence in Eden, but we’ve not yet moved into our forever Heavenly Home with God’s people in God’s presence. Life on this planet is lived in a body and a home for our body that are both rentals we won’t be in forever. [FOOTNOTE: Jn.14:1-3; 2 Cor. 5:1]
We were made to be at home together with God our Father as a family. Everyone who has bought a home, moved, stayed in a hotel, gone camping, done a home improvement project, watched a home improvement show on tv, or gone through an open house for a home up for sale is actually looking forward to Heaven which is our home and the Father’s House.
Heaven is a Garden
Being outdoors in a beautiful environment simply makes you feel closer to God. This is why we go on vacations, hike mountains, swim lakes, raft rivers, golf courses, and plant gardens.
Before God made people, He made a garden for us to live in. Eden means paradise, and we feel at home in beautiful outdoor spaces because that was our original home. The garden of Eden is a realm in which God and other divine beings (including angels) met with our first parents as the connection point between the Kingdom of Heaven in the unseen realm and the Kingdom of Earth in the seen realm. That garden and realm continue to exist, although we have lost access to it. When Jesus died on the cross, one of the thieves dying at His side repented of his sin and received Jesus as his Savior. He was then told by Jesus that upon death he would be taken to “paradise” which means garden and was likely the same place that Adam and Eve were kicked out of.
When Jesus returns, Revelation reveals that He will bring the paradise garden of Eden with Him. God’s original plan for this planet has not been ruined by Satan and sin but will be restored by our King and His Kingdom. Eternity will begin as history did – with God ruling from a garden on the earth seated on a throne with the tree of life open for people to be healed from the curse and live together forever on the earth in physical bodies. [FOOTNOTE: Gen. 2:8: cf. Rev. 22:1-2.]
The next time you see a sunrise or sunset, jump into a lake, hike up a mountain, plant a garden, put flowers in your home, enjoy the leaves of fall, feel a breeze, step into a river, or feel the cool grass or warm sand under your feet, remind yourself that the best is yet to come.
Heaven is a Party
In John 2, Jesus begins His public ministry changing water into wine at a wedding party.
The miracles of God point to the Kingdom of God. The reason Jesus did His first miracle at a wedding party is because the Kingdom of God is the last and best wedding party. [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 22:1-2.] Revelation 19 previews the final wedding of history ushering in eternity as Jesus returns to rule the earth as a kingly groom, with the church being loved and cared for like a bride. The entire scene that ushers in forever is the most epic party that kicks off the party that never ends.
You were made for that party. Everyone who celebrates a birthday, loves the holidays, buys a cake, blows a kazoo, grills at a tailgate party, cheers at a concert, hosts a dinner party, smiles at a wedding, wears the jersey of their favorite team, or showed up for the inauguration of their candidate is someone who deep down wants Jesus to come back and throw a party…whether they know it or not.
Earth is the shadow of Heaven. The parties we throw are shadows of the Party that is Heaven. Sadly, the Devil has done a good job lying about Heaven and convincing folks that Hell is where the party is, and that Heaven is where the party poopers are. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The problem is that it’s easy to equate religious people and Heaven. This equation, however, is flawed. When on the earth, Jesus kept going to parties and having people throw parties when He showed up, including kids. Jesus has the perfect sense of humor and tells us that this life has some tears, but that Heaven is a party of laughing and rejoicing: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven…” [FOOTNOTE: Luke 6:21,23].
When the Bible uses the words joy some 200 times, and throws in the word laugh some 40 times, it reminds us that laughing is practice for Heaven. Martin Luther once said, “If you’re not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” [ENDNOTE #1]
A cheerless, critical, boring Christian is a bad advertisement for Heaven, which is the party that never ends!
Jesus talks about hell more than anyone else in all of Scripture. Jesus’ words come in the context of the rest of Scripture, which says that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” [FOOTNOTE: 1 Tim. 2:4.] Furthermore, he “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” [FOOTNOTE: 2 Pet. 3:9.]
Despite God’s love for and patience with sinners, it is a horrid mistake to dismiss the Bible’s clear teachings on hell. Richard Niebuhr characterized the ongoing attempt of liberal Christians to deny hell as “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” [ENDNOTE #2] Jesus said more about hell than about any other topic. Amazingly, 13 percent of his sayings are about hell and judgment; more than half of his parables relate to the eternal judgment of sinners. [ENDNOTE #3]
The Bible does not give us a detailed exposition of hell, but there are many descriptions of the fate of its inhabitants in that place of eternal punishment. They include (1) fire; [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 13:42, 50; 18:8, 9; Rev. 19:20; 20:14–15.] (2) darkness; [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 25:30; Jude 13.] (3) punishment; [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 14:10–11.] (4) exclusion from God’s presence; [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 7:23; 25:41; Luke 16:19ff.; 2 Thess. 1:9.] (5) restlessness; [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 14:11.] (6) second death; [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8.] and (7) weeping and gnashing of teeth. [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 13:42, 50; 22:12–13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28.]
Admittedly, there is a long discussion among Christians regarding how literally to take these descriptions. Evangelicals usually follow John Calvin in seeing them as metaphorical figures trying to describe the indescribable. [ENDNOTE #4] These evangelical Christians don’t decrease the severity but only the specificity of the descriptions.
The Bible’s portrait of hell is nothing like the mocking cartoon caricatures drawn by Matt Groening or Gary Larson. Likewise, hell is not a fun place where sinners get to live out their sinful pleasures, as if Satan rules over hell and sin can be pursued without inhibition. This erroneous view of Satan ruling in hell comes not from Scripture but from Puritan John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which has the Devil arrogantly declaring, “Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.” [ENDNOTE #5] But Satan will not reign there. Hell is a place of punishment that God prepared for the Devil and his angels. [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 25:41.] It is where the beast and the false prophet and those who worship them will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of His anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night. [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 14:10–11.]
At the end of the age, the Devil will be “thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 20:10.] Hell will be ruled by Jesus, and human and demon alike, including Satan, will be tormented there continually.
Hell is real and terrible. It is eternal. There is no possibility of amnesty or reprieve. Daniel says that some of the dead will be resurrected “to shame and everlasting contempt.” [FOOTNOTE: Dan. 12:2.] Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…And these will go away into eternal punishment.” [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 25:41, 46.]
Paul tells us, “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” [FOOTNOTE: 2 Thess. 1:6–9.]
Perhaps the clearest and most gripping depiction of hell in all of Scripture is the frequent mention of hell as “Gehenna.” The name refers to an area outside of the city of Jerusalem where idolatry and horrendous sin, including child sacrifice, were practiced. [FOOTNOTE: 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 19:56; 32:35.] Gehenna was a place so despised and cursed by God’s people that they turned it into the city dump where feces, refuse, and the dead bodies of criminals were stacked. Jesus spoke of Gehenna as the hellish final home of the wicked. [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 5:22; 10:28; 18:9.] Since Gehenna is described as a fiery abyss, [FOOTNOTE: Mark 9:43] clearly it is also the lake of fire [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 13:42, 50] to which all the godless will ultimately be eternally sentenced, [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 23:15, 33] together with Satan, demons, and unrepentant sinners. [FOOTNOTE: Matt. 25:41; Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15.] So, when the Bible speaks of hell as a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die, the original hearers would easily have remembered Gehenna, where this reality was ever present outside of their city. [FOOTNOTE: Isa. 66:24; Mark 9:47–48.]
Our attitude toward hell should be the same as the Father’s, who takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked but begs them to turn from their evil ways. [FOOTNOTE: Ezek. 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9.] Jesus joins the Father’s compassionate yearning as he weeps over Jerusalem. [FOOTNOTE: Jer. 31:20; Hos. 11:8; Matt. 23:37–38; Luke 19:41–44.] Paul also has “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” [FOOTNOTE: Rom. 9:2–3.] Furthermore, he “did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.” [FOOTNOTE: Acts 20:31; cf. Acts 20:19–20; Phil. 3:18.]
Feeling as he ought about hell, Charles Spurgeon rightly began his sermon on the eternal conscious torment of the wicked in hell this way: “Beloved, these are such weighty things that while I dwell upon them I feel far more inclined to sit down and weep than to stand up and speak to you.” [ENDNOTE #6]
- “Eutychus & His Kin,” Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1980), 674.
- Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1937), 193. For a contemporary attempt to explain away hell, see Brian D. McLaren, The Last Word and the Word after That (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008).
- John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Durham, England: Evangelical Press, 1993), 128.
- See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2:1007; (3.25.12). Others who agree that the figures are metaphorical include Billy Graham, Leon Morris, J. I. Packer, Millard Erickson, and D. A. Carson, according to William Crockett, Four Views on Hell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 44–45n6.
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, bk. 1, ln. 263.
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Final Separation,” sermon no. 1234, preached in 1875, The Charles H. Spurgeon Library Version 1 (AGES Digital Library, CD-ROM), 353.