Heaven & Hell
It is impossible to state categorically what the Bible as a whole says about heaven. Biblical beliefs about heaven are varied, complex and fluid.
In the Christian tradition, heaven and paradise have been conflated as an answer to the question where do I go when I die. The ideal of the dead being in heaven or enjoying paradise often brings enormous comfort to the bereaved, and hope to those suffering or dying. Yet, heaven and paradise were originally more about where God lived, not about us, or our ultimate destination.
The words for heaven or heavens in both the Hebrew “shamayim” and Greek “ouranos” can also be translated as sky. Heaven is not something that exists eternally but rather part of creation. The first line of the Bible states that heaven is created along with the creation of the earth (Genesis 1:1). Hence, it is primarily God’s dwelling place in the biblical tradition: a parallel realm where everything operates according to God’s will. Heaven is a place of peace, love, community, and worship where God is surrounded by a heavenly court and other heavenly beings.
Shamayim is the he Hebrew word for heaven (literally heavens, plural); it denotes one component of the three-part biblical cosmology, the other elements being erets (the earth) and sheol (the underworld). Likewise, shamayim is the dwelling place of God and the other heavenly beings. Erets is the home of the living. Sheol is the realm of the dead, summed up in post- Hebrew Bible literature (including the New Testament) as the abode of the righteous dead.
The Hebrew word shamayim is constructed of two parts: “sham” derived from Akkadian “samu” meaning “sky or lofty” and Hebrew “mayim” meaning “water”. In Genesis, 1:6 God separated the water from the water. The area above the earth was filled by sky water (sham-mayim) and the earth below was filled with sea water (yam-mayim).
John, the author of the Book of Revelation, integrates the ideal of heaven and paradise into one. The author describes a vision of a new recreated heaven coming down to earth. It is not escapism from this planet and all of its woes. But more so, an affirmation of all that is created—material and earthly, now healed and renewed.
Revelation 21:1-4, paints the picture of this new reality as such, “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold the Tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them and be there God. And God shall wipe away their tears from their eyes; and there should be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away”.
This final biblical vision of heaven is a lot like the Garden of Eden complete with the Tree of Life, rivers, plants and God, although this time it is also an urban, multicultural city. In what is essentially a return to Eden, humans are reconciled with God and of course with one another. Heaven or paradise in the Bible is an utopian vision, designed not only to inspire faith in God but also in the hope that people might embody the values of love, peace, righteousness, joy, and reconciliation in this world.
Whether it is in the sky or on the new earth, it is every one’s desire to be there. Unfortunately not all will be. “Not everyone that said unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the Kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven”. (Matthew 7:21)
One in the military midway through boot camp, one engaged in punishing work, one engulfed in tedious work to meet a deadline or someone performing tedious and meticulous tasks outside in the 90-degree heat may proclaim in exhaustion, “This is hell.” One, of course does not mean that he or she is living in the place of eternal torment or standing in the Lake of Fire. Considered by some as a swear or curse word, hell can be used to threaten eternal damnation or to add color to an exclamation. But do we even know what we mean by the term and where does this Christian idea come from?
The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament uses the word sheol to describe the realm of the dead. Sometimes described as a pit and imagined to be a literal place under the earth, sheol is where the dead, all of them whether good or bad go when they die. From antiquity, sheol has often only been used poetically to relate the sense of tragedy associated with death. Sheol was not however associated with fiery torment, nor was it a place of punishment; this conceptualization comes much later.
In the New Testament, hell is referred to by various terms; Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus, or the Abyss. Gehenna was a valley in or near Jerusalem. One popular theory is that it was the site of a perpetually burning rubbish dump fire being the ultimate decontaminant in antiquity and thus served as a metaphor for a site of purification. There is however, little historical evidence for this theory. The more likely reason for Gehenna’s association with hell lies in the memory preserved in the Hebrew Bible that this place was where people burned their children as human sacrifices to gods. The ancient peoples sacrificed their children unto Molech the fire god and offered them up to demons by passing through the fire for purification. As we know, the Lord commanded the Hebrews to do no such thing. Leviticus 18:21 reads, “And thou shall not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord”. Therefore, Gehenna became synonymous with wickedness, fire, and death.
The term Hades comes from Greek culture. It was initially used as a name for the god who had dominion over the realm of the dead. It was later extended to the place itself and then later for as the place where all dead people resided. In Greek poetry, Tartarus is simply another name for Hades.
The writers of the New Testament influenced by both Greek and Jewish cultures, incorporated Hades, Gehenna, and, Sheol, ideas of the Abyss, and other traditions into their conceptions of the realm of the dead. They write in the time when literary tours of hell in stories about the fate of lives after death were common. Most English Bibles translate Hades, Gehenna, and Sheol with the generic term “hell” leaving readers unaware of the nuances and distinct terms in use.
A description of hell emerged in the pages of the Bible during early Christianity as a means of moral formation designed to persuade people to act ethically. For example, Luke’s gospel tells the story of a very wealthy man who lived lavishly and ignored a poor man Lazarus, who begged outside his gate. In Jesus’ parable both men die but their situations are shockingly reversed in the afterlife. The poor man finally has enough to eat and his bodily sores are healed up, whereas the rich man now suffers crying out for a drink of water and begging for mercy. Similarly, some Christians invoke hell to persuade individuals to repent of their sins. So hell seems to be a place where the righteous dead can rest until they can be evaluated and judged and the wicked are in torment awaiting evaluation and judgment as well.
The Book of Revelation depicts a scene of final judgment where all the dead are raised to give an account of their actions with some sentence to a second death along with all evil with Satan, and others to eternal life. Revelation 20:13 depicts this idea fully, “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.” Such is also depicted in Luke 13:27-28 where it reads, “But he shall say, I tell you, I know you not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out.”
Likewise, many ancient Greek texts also depict tours of hell intended to comfort readers with ethical questions and educate them about morality. One challenge to the ideal of hell as a literal place comes from the Bible itself. Parts of the New Testament record that when Jesus died on the cross He descended into the realm of the dead.
In conclusion, hell is complicated precisely because it is a term used to denote a cluster of diverse ideals in the biblical tradition. It can be a place of rest in paradise, as described in the book of Luke by Jesus concerning Lazarus being comforted in Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man being in torment and in flames. Both were in the same place, Sheol for Lazarus and Gehenna for the rich man. One thing we are assured of, it is not a place we want to go. Proverbs 15:24 declares, “The way of life is above to the wise, that he may depart from Hell beneath”.
The Second Coming of Christ
Jesus Christ is coming back to the earth in bodily form just as He went away (Acts 1:11). He will “catch away” a holy people, His bride. His bride is the church who has accepted redemption through His blood, and by grace through faith has received salvation. By the birth of the water and spirit, His bride will be found faithful when He comes (Revelation 22:20). As scripture says, “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16- 17).
The signs of His coming are everywhere. The days of peril are here indeed and there are forms of godliness void of the power of God. Society and politics are corrupt, and people’s hearts are filled with pride, blasphemy, ungodliness, the love of evil, and the love of pleasures (2 Timothy 3:1-13). People are running “to and fro,” knowledge has increased (Daniel 12:4), and scores of other things are startling signs that the coming of Jesus is drawing near. Wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, storms, floods, distresses of nations, perplexities, and people’s hearts failing them for fear are all numerous signs sounding the solemn alarm that the coming of Jesus is at hand (Matthew 24:6; Luke 21:25-28). Hence, we must, “Prepare to meet thy God” (Amos 4:12).
There will be a resurrection of all the dead, both just an unjust. The scripture declares, “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (John 5:28-29). The scripture also states, “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God… And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them” (Revelation 20:12-13; 1 Corinthians 15:13-23).
“It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). For this reason, there will be a resurrection for everyone. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
The eternal destiny of every soul shall be determined by a just God who knows the secrets of everyone’s heart. As scripture says:
And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world… Then shall he also say unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:32-41)