Most religions and religious organizations, including most Christian denominations, teach that good people go to some sort of paradise, usually heaven, after they die. Heaven is usually characterized as a place of unsurpassable happiness—the ultimate paradise. It is commonly taught and believed that all who go there will live joyfully forever.
Yet, considering what a wonderful place it is supposed to be, it seems no one is in a hurry to go there.
Death, which according to most traditional beliefs is the gateway to heaven, is generally viewed as something to be avoided at all costs. Through medical science we usually do everything we can to prevent death as long as possible. If such a journey to heaven could be by means of some heavenly express, wouldn't we find that almost no one would want to buy a ticket? Wouldn't we find that most people would prefer the continuation of their present life here on earth to any immediate possibility of taking up residence in heaven? Our actions indicate this is the way most of us think.
An eternity doing what?
Perhaps the reason for the reluctance to enter the hereafter through death is that no one has ever provided us with a truly compelling explanation as to what the righteous would do once they arrived in heaven. If we are to spend all eternity there, you would think God would tell us in the Bible what we should expect once we arrive. Will we spend our time plucking harps? Will we sit and simply gaze upon God? These are both popular concepts of heaven, but most people can't imagine doing either for eternity. Eternity is, after all, a long time!
Maybe we should ask ourselves whether these common concepts come from the Bible. Many people who expect to go to heaven admit they can find little in the Scriptures about what they can expect once they get there. British historian and author Paul Johnson put it this way: "Heaven ... lacks genuine incentive. Indeed, it lacks definition of any kind. It is the great hole in theology" (The Quest for God, 1996, p. 173). If heaven is the goal God has set for His servants, why has He revealed so little about it in His Word, the Bible?
There is an excellent reason we encounter a vacuum when we look in the Bible for what the "saved"-those who are spared some sort of eternal punishment-will do in heaven. The reason is simple: The Bible does not say the righteous will receive heaven as their reward. As we will see, the Bible reveals that God has something else in mind-something far different and far superior to most people's concepts about heaven.
Troubling questions about hell
But heaven isn't the only problem we run into when we consider popular views of life after death. What about the unrighteous, those who don't measure up? What happens to them?
Many who profess Christianity believe the wicked will burn forever in hell. They claim to find this teaching in the Bible.
But we need to ask a simple question: Would a merciful God inflict excruciating pain and torment on human beings for millions and millions of years-throughout all eternity? Could the great Creator God of the universe be that unfeeling and uncaring? Even though "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), the God of love, justice and mercy has no desire to see anyone, even the incorrigibly wicked, suffer in agony for all eternity.
The Bible indeed says that God "has appointed a day when He will judge the world in righteousness" (Acts 17:31). At that time those who have repented and accepted Christ as their Savior will be given eternal life. "There is no salvation through anyone else; in all the world no other name [than Jesus'] has been granted to mankind by which we can be saved" (Acts 4:12, Revised English Bible).
But what will happen in that day to the hapless people who were never fortunate enough even to be exposed to that name? Will they be cast shrieking into hell along with those who hate and despise God?
Only a minority of the earth's population lays claim to being Christian. Those who profess Christianity total only some 28 percent of the world's population. Vast numbers of the other 72 percent have never had the opportunity to genuinely repent and accept Christ simply because of where they live. Millions more through the centuries likewise never had the opportunity because of when they lived. Would it be just and right for God to subject them to the same punishment He will give to those who reject Him and make themselves His enemies?
These questions are neither trivial nor hypothetical. They affect the overwhelming majority of all people who have ever lived. When carried to their conclusions, the traditional answers have sobering implications about the character, nature and judgment of the very Being Christians claim to worship. We need to face these questions squarely and honestly. Isn't it about time we examined the truth of what the Bible teaches about heaven and hell?
Join us on a journey through the pages of history and your Bible. You may find the answers quite surprising!
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