The Bible speaks clearly of the existence of Heaven. It describes a place in which sadness, pain and death itself end once and for all. Beyond that, it gives only hints of what humans will experience beyond death. However, the hints are sufficient to thrill us that humans should anticipate an exhilarating and beautiful experience in the magnificent presence of the Lord God.
Christians look forward to Heaven as place where people will find complete healing and everything about their identity enhanced to its full potential. In that context they will enjoy the love of God and enjoy the love of each other forever.
The Christian faith has no suggestion of reincarnation.
Hell is also spoken of in the Bible, but its nature is even more sketchy. When Jesus described the destiny of sinners who refused to change their ways, he compared it to Gehenna, which was a rubbish dump outside Jerusalem. People in wretched poverty picked their way through it to find scraps, and fires burned.
Church leaders of mediaeval times took Jesus’ picture of wretchedness literally. They preached of a judgment after death in which the wicked were thrown by devils into flames, while obedient churchgoers were lifted by angels into bliss. Pictures of this divide can still be seen on the walls of ancient churches.
Today, those who seek to understand what the Bible means when it describes Hell are more likely to consider the complete misery of being separated from God once the reality of his plans for eternity have been made plain. That would be a spiritual desolation equivalent to the woe that Jesus could see in Gehenna.
Some Christians are confident that the death and resurrection of Jesus took place for every single man and woman in the planet’s history. Everyone will be welcomed into his presence, forgiven and accepted because his love is triumphant.
Other Christians maintain that a decision on earth to seek God’s forgiveness through Jesus is required in order to be sure of being accepted into Heaven. People who reject God during their lives will have their earthly decision respected, and be rejected in their turn. They will either cease to exist altogether or suffer an eternity of agonising regret.
There is a belief among some Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians that there is a transitional state between this life and Heaven known as Purgatory. This is a place where human souls can be purified and made ready to spend eternity with God. It is seen as joyless, because justice needs to be done for a lifetime’s wrongdoing, but it can be shortened by the prayers of those still alive on earth.
Purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible, but the concept has existed since the early centuries of the Christian church. During the 16th century there were very substantial upheavals in the Christian church. Churches which have been founded since then (Protestant churches) do not have this belief.
It is obviously not possible to know beyond doubt what the future holds. However, Christians face their deaths with two confident beliefs that are both invigorating and comforting. Firstly, God is just. It is absolutely inconceivable that someone will suffer a fate that they do not deserve. Secondly, God is endlessly loving. Nothing in either life or death can separate people from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ the Lord.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with human beings, 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.’
Where to find it:
About these words:
These words come from the closing chapters of the Bible. Revelation is the Bible’s most mysterious book, using deeply poetic picture language to depict what might be thought of as indescribable. The writer recounts a vision in which the nature of heaven is made clear to him – a place of peace, happiness, justice and enjoyment of God’s presence. He uses extravagant images of cities, weddings and homes.
And they said…
Desmond Tutu, former archboshop of Cape Town:
We may be surprised who we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.
Mark Twain, 1835-1910, novelist and humorist:
Heaven goes by favour. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.
Woody Allen, film director:
There will be no major solution to the suffering of mankind until we reach some understanding of who we are, what the purpose of creation was, what happens after death. Until these questions are resolved we are caught.
Charles Kingsley, novelist, 1819-1875:
It is not darkness that you are going to, for God is light. It is not lonely, for Christ is with you. It is not unknown country, for Christ is already there.
C S Lewis, writer and academic, 1898-1963:
In hell, they talk a lot about love. In heaven, they just do it. Hell is an unending church service without God. Heaven is God without a church service!