Payday Someday: Why I Believe in Heaven and Hell
November 26, 1995
This morning we come face to face with the most basic question of all: What happens when we die? For thousands of years men and women have pondered this question and offered differing answers.
The materialist says that there is no such thing as a soul or spirit so that when we die, we simply cease to exist.
The reincarnationist believes that after we die, we come back to earth in another life form either higher or lower depending on how we have lived in this life.
The universalist argues that since a loving God would never send anyone to hell, everyone eventually ends up in heaven.
The second-chance salvationist says that those who didn’t believe in Christ in this life get a second chance after death.
The annihilationist says that believers go to heaven while unbelievers are destroyed by God.
The probationist believes that everyone goes to a place called purgatory where we pay for our own sinful acts until we have purged ourselves and then we enter heaven.
It is an ancient question. Job 14:14 asks, “If a man dies, will he live again?” At every funeral that question is asked in one way or another. Is there life after death? If so, what happens when we die? How can we be sure? And most importantly, how can we be ready when the moment comes?
What about heaven? What about hell? Are these real places or are they merely symbols that point to the universal longing for immorality? Can we still believe in heaven and hell?
Imagine There’s No Heaven
Not everyone does. The Beatles have been back in the news this week because the three surviving members of the band got together and recorded vocals to some tracks laid down by John Lennon before he was shot to death. Perhaps you recall these words by John Lennon from the song “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try. No hell below us–above us only sky.”
These famous words invite us to imagine a world in which there is no heaven or hell. Lennon seems to suggest that if we all agreed to imagine away certain unpleasant realities, we could create utopia on earth. But instead of pretending, we would do well to investigate the way things really are. Let’s find out if there is really is a heaven and hell before we naively attempt to imagine them away.
Americans Believe in Heaven and Hell
I believe John Lennon was wrong. I believe that heaven and hell are real places and that each of us will spend eternity in one place or the other. Interestingly, recent polls show that I’m not alone in that belief. A 1991 survey commissioned by U.S. News and World Report shows that 78% of Americans believe in heaven and 60% believe in hell. The survey also revealed that 81% of the women surveyed thought they had an excellent chance of going to heaven while only 3% thought they had a similar chance of going to hell. “And in heaven as on earth, women will outnumber men: 73 percent of the guys surveyed say they expect to go to heaven, while 5 percent say they expect to wind up in hell.
So most Americans believe in heaven and most of us are planning on going there. Most of us also believe in hell but almost no one plans to go there.
Only One Source
But we can’t base our hope for the future on Gallup Polls. We need to know the truth. Is there a heaven and a hell? If so, we need to know what they are really like. And we need to know who is going where and why.
In all the world there is only one source of authoritative information about the afterlife, and that is the Bible. Outside of the Bible, everything else is only speculation and wishful thinking. We will not spend any time this morning talking about Near-Death Experiences, whether by believers or unbelievers. We want to know what God’s Word has to say on this important topic.
I begin with the words of Jesus Christ: “A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:29). Here we have the testimony of Our Lord on the subject. One of two destinies awaits each human being after death: eternal life in heaven or eternal condemnation in hell.
We turn first to consider the reality of heaven.
I. Heaven: Eternal Joy
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus uttered these famous words to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3). What is heaven like? It’s like going home at Thanksgiving to the house where you grew up. It’s like getting out of the car and seeing your mother and father standing at the door with their arms stretched out to greet you. It’s the biggest family reunion in history in a place Jesus called “my Father’s house.” When Eugene Peterson translated John 14:1, he used a charming phrase, “There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home.”
Plenty of room for you–that’s a wonderful thought. But even more wonderful is the truth that heaven is a prepared place.
What is heaven like? Here are some biblical facts about heaven. It is …
–God’s dwelling place (Psalm 33:13)
–Where Christ is today (Acts 1:11)
–Where Christians go when they die (Phil 1:21-22)
–The Father’s house (John 14:1)
–A city designed and built by God (Hebrews 11:10)
–A better country (Hebrews 11:16)
–Paradise (Luke 23:33)
Most of us have heard that heaven is place where the streets are paved with gold, the gates are made of pearl and the walls made of precious jewels. Those images come from Revelation 21-22, which offer us the most extended picture of heaven in the entire Bible. If you ask me if I believe those things are literally true, the answer is yes and no. Yes, they are literally true but no, heaven won’t be anything like we imagine. It will be much greater.
Wrong Ideas About Heaven
Heaven’s gotten a bad press lately. We don’t believe in it like we used to. We don’t think about it very much nowadays. We’re all too busy making a living to worry about what happens after we die.
We have the wrong idea of heaven.
So many of us have the wrong idea of heaven. We think it’s like that commercial where two middle-aged men tap you on the shoulder in the middle of the street and you ride an escalator into the clouds while a choir sings. Or we think it’s like a television show where apprentice angels return to the earth to do good deeds and help poor earthlings in trouble. Or more generally, we have a vague idea that heaven is some ethereal, misty realm where we float on clouds all day plucking harps and polishing our halos.
But the truth is much different. Heaven is a real place filled with real people. The Bible pictures it as a great city filled with all of God’s people.
A City Built By God
What would such a city look like? It would be a city with …
No pollution for the skies would always be crystal clear.
No crime or violence for no criminals would ever enter.
No greedy politicians, no drug pushers, no child molesters.
No potholes and no power outages either.
It would be filled with abundant parks, rivers, rolling meadows, and flowing streams. Lining the streets would be flowers in constant bloom, fruit trees of every kind, every species of plant life growing free from pestilence and disease.
The gates would be made of pearl, the walls of jasper, the streets of gold. Precious stones would lie on the ground like playthings–emeralds, rubies, diamonds galore.
On every hand there would be children laughing, bright conversation, music floating from every direction.
In the city that God builds, there are no tears, there is no sorrow, no regret, no remorse. Bitterness gone forever, failure left far behind, suffering redeemed and rewarded. There are no eyeglasses, no braces, no wheelchairs, no false teeth, no bald heads, no hearing aids, no nursing. There are no more hospitals, no more nursing homes, no paramedics, no CPR. Doctors have to find a new job, they aren’t needed anymore. Aspirin gone, accidents over, cancer disappeared, heart attacks banished, AIDS a distant memory. In heaven no one grows old and feeble.
A City With No Cemeteries
There is one other thing you won’t find in heaven. There are no cemeteries in the city God builds. Why? There are no funerals … for in that glad city no one ever dies.
If you make it to that city, you live forever, never to die again. Either you believe in heaven or you don’t. It’s either a real place or it isn’t.
A few years ago Oral Roberts’ oldest son Robert committed suicide at the age of 38. He had been on drugs ever since returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam. Writing in his diary, Oral recounted the terrible events of his son’s last days. Then he added, “Satan has played his last card. Death is all he can do to my son. Satan is finished now. Thanks God, there are no graves dug into the hillsides of heaven.”
If heaven is real, then this life is not the end.
Do you remember the name Chet Bitterman? He was a Wycliffe missionary in Columbia taken captive by guerrillas in early 1981. He was held for 48 days until March 8, when his body was found in Bogota with one bullet through his heart. Speaking of it later, his father said, “We have eight children. One is heaven. Seven are on earth.”
To the unbeliever such words seem either sentimental or simply incredible. But to the one who accepts God’s Word at face value, they are nothing less than the sober truth. If Jesus Christ can be trusted, then heaven is a real place. If heaven is real, then this life is not the end. There really is a city “with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
II. Hell: Eternal Misery
Hell is a real place.
We turn now to consider what the Bible says about hell. It may interest you to know that Jesus believed in a literal hell. In fact, he spoke of hell more often than he spoke of heaven. For instance, Jesus told a story in Luke 16 about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. When Lazarus died he went to heaven but the rich man went to hell. We pick up the story in verse 23: “In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” Some people have grave difficulty with this story because they reject the notion that Jesus believed in a literal hell with literal fire. But here Jesus plainly says that there was a rich man who was tormented in the fires of hell. I find nothing in the text to suggest that this is symbolic. It appears to be an actual description of hell.
Someone has called hell the “forgotten doctrine” of the evangelical church. We don’t talk about it nowadays because it isn’t popular to suggest that unbelievers are tormented for all eternity for their sins. In order to soften the blow, some theologians have suggested that unbelievers are annihilated or destroyed by God, but they do not suffer throughout eternity.
The Lake of Fire
I confess that the thought is indeed so gruesome as to be almost unbearable. Yet the Bible teaches the eternal punishment of the wicked in many passages. Here are some of the biblical words and phrases associated with hell: smoke, fire, burning, torment, bottomless pit, everlasting prison, wrath, weeping, wailing, gnashing teeth, unquenchable fire, damnation, furnace of fire, blackness and darkness, and brimstone.
The most terrible verse in all the Bible.
Revelation 20:11-15 describes the awesome scene surrounding the Great White Throne judgment at the end of the millennium. Here we discover the final destination of those who will not bow before Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Pause for a moment to let that image settle in your mind. A lake of fire. This is the most terrible verse in all the Bible.
What would a lake of fire be like? It is a lake so large that you cannot see the other side. A lake filled with fire and burning smoke. A lake so hot that no one can come near without burning up. The roar of the fire never stops, the smoke ascends forever. Into that lake the unsaved dead are tossed one by one, screaming, pleading, begging for mercy. But it is too late. Too late for repentance. Too late for remorse. Too late to give your heart to Jesus. That day is long past.
Death Without Death
If you are there on that day, you will be thrown headfirst into the lake. The heat will be unbearable. First scorching your skin, then turning it black, then baking your organs, stilling your voice, enveloping your head, destroying your vision, You open your mouth but no words come out. You inhale the choking smoke and pray to die but you can’t. As the flames blacken your body, you feel such pain that no words could ever describe it. Worse and worse it becomes until you reach the moment of death but you do not die. Frantically you swim for shore. But there is no shore. Only wave upon wave of hot sulfur washing over your charred body. You cannot sink, you cannot reach shore, you cannot see anyone around you. You are lost–eternally, hopelessly, terribly, consciously lost. You curse God but it does no good. You raise a bloody, blackened fist and the sulfur washes over it producing a soundless scream of agony.
Oh Jesus, you pray, but no one answers. How did this happen? How could it have ended this way? On and on you swim, burning but not consumed, tortured with no relief, hoping for rescue but no one comes to your aid.
This is the second death. It is the final destination of those who do not know Jesus Christ.
If someone objects to my depiction, I assure you that I mean no harm or offense to anyone. But I believe the Lake of Fire is real. I am sure that the reality is far worse than my words portray.
III. Why It Must Be True
Since some people scoff at the notion of an afterlife, let’s pause for a moment and ask why the Bible reveals heaven and hell to us. What do we gain by knowing about these things and why are they important to the Christian faith?
1. To right the wrongs of this life.
What shall we say about the people who get away with murder and then go free? What about the pornographers who ruin so many lives? What about the drug pushers who corrupt our young people? What about the husbands who walk out on their wives for other women? What about the politicians who abuse their power and get rich off the misery of others?
And what about the monstrous criminals who killed that mother and her two children and then tore the unborn baby from her body? How can any punishment on earth repay them for what they did?
So many crimes go unpunished while the perpetrators are set free to hurt others. Hell must exist, if for no other reason than to balance the scales of justice.
2. To Reward those who serve the Lord.
A week ago Wednesday, I saw Miss Eva Lodgaard, who this year celebrated her 50th year as a missionary in the hills of southeastern Kentucky. When she graduated from Moody in 1945, she left Chicago with a pledge of $20 from our church. That’s all she had. She started her ministry back in the remote hollows of the Appalachian Mountains, riding on horseback along the creekbeds to teach the Bible to schoolchildren. She has officially retired but of course she is as busy today as she ever was. When I saw Miss Eva, she was a bit unsteady on her feet but she had a big smile on her face. She told me that the ladies of the Rock Fork Sunday School (which meets in a mobile home) listen my taped sermons. I told her to tell the ladies that the next time I come to Camp Nathanael, I would stay over on Sunday and preach for the ladies at Rock Fork.
Miss Eva is not famous as the world counts fame. Many would say that she threw her life away by wasting it with those mountain people. She could have stayed in suburbia, gotten married, had a family, and enjoyed a comfortable retirement. But she chose to serve the Lord instead.
Where is her reward? Oh, I know that she is greatly loved by all who know her–and that is part of her reward–but the best is yet to come. God has promised to reward those who serve Jesus Christ on the earth. Heaven must exist so that those who served Jesus faithfully may enter their eternal reward.
3. To fulfill the promises God made to his people.
The Bible is filled with promises about heaven. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go, I will come back to take you to be with me that you may also be where I am” (John 14:3). The last two chapters of the Bible are a description of heaven. Millions of believers have died believing in the reality of heaven. If it’s not true, then God is liar. Heaven must exist because Jesus promised to take us there when we die.
4. Redeem the suffering of this life.
Romans 8:18 says that “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Not a week goes by that I don’t talk with someone whose suffering seems to be overwhelming. It may be cancer or some other disease, it may be a broken marriage or a child in trouble, it may be financial disaster or trouble at work or at school. God’s people endure many hardships in this life. Most of the time we can’t fully understand why God allows certain things to happen to us.
But we have this promise. When the books are opened and the scales are balanced, we will discover that the things we went through in this life are nothing compared with the glories of heaven. No one will ever say to Jesus, “Heaven’s not so great. It wasn’t worth what I went through to get here.” When we finally get to heaven, the glory will be so great that we won’t even remember the things that made us weep in this life.
Heaven must exist, or our present suffering loses its meaning.
Someone said it this way. For the unbeliever, this life is the only heaven they will ever know. For the believer, this life is the only hell we will ever know.
IV. What It Means For You
Last Monday morning I took a long walk along Randolph Street starting at my house and going west through Forest Park and River Forest to the corner of Randolph and First Avenue in Maywood. As I was on my way back home I noticed a hearse with a funeral procession coming down the street toward one of the many cemeteries to west of us. It was a clear, crisp, beautiful morning and my first thought was, “I’m glad I don’t have to do a funeral service this morning.” I kept walking and within a block another hearse passed me, this time with fewer cars in the procession. Still walking, I was near the corner of Randolph and Lathrop when a third hearse passed by, with even fewer cars behind it. As I watched the faces of the people in the cars, the thought hit me, “I’ve done plenty of funerals. Someday I’ll be the one in the hearse.” My day is coming!
So is yours. The Bible says, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). There is one appointment no one will miss. Sooner or later we will all die.
One day you will be the one in the hearse. What will happen then?
I’ve told you before about my breakfast conversation a few weeks ago with an atheist from River Forest. When I asked him what happens when we die, he said nothing happens. Our bodies are buried and our soul dissolves into nothingness.
But what if he is wrong?
Several hundred years ago the French philosopher Pascal put forth his famous wager regarding the Christian faith. It’s an imaginary conversation between a Christian and a non-believer. It goes like this. Suppose that atheism is right and Christianity is wrong. In the end, I have lost nothing by believing in Christ since my faith gives me hope and comfort in this life and the atheist has gained nothing because he believes that death ends all. But suppose that Christianity is right and atheism is wrong. Who wins and who loses? The Christian wins everything because he goes to heaven. The atheist loses everything because he goes to hell.
If we are wrong, we lose nothing at all. If we are right, we go to heaven. But those who reject Christ run a terrible risk that hell is real because if it is, that’s where they are going.
“Bob, Are You Sure?”
I am reminded of the time when the famous skeptic Robert Ingersoll spoke on why he didn’t believe in hell and why no intelligent person could believe such mythology. Mr. Ingersoll was a most convincing speaker and after he was finished, he was met by a drunk who asked him one question: “Bob, are you sure? I’m depending on you.”
Each person here must make an intelligent and informed decision about heaven and hell. If what I have said is true, then you must do whatever it takes to make sure you go to heaven and you must make sure at all costs that you do not go to hell.
Two Things I Know
Let’s go back one more time to the words of Jesus Christ in John 14. When Thomas asked him the way to heaven, Jesus gave this answer: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (v. 6).
The way to heaven is as narrow as the Cross. Only those who trust Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord will enter the gates of heaven.
There are two truths I know about myself with complete certainty: First, I ought to go to hell because that is where I belong. In a thousand ways over ten thousand days, I have sinned against God in word and deed. I deserve his punishment because my sins are great. But the second truth is greater than the first: I am going to heaven because Jesus Christ went to hell on a Cross for me. He paid the price, he took my punishment so that I could go free.
Going to Hell From Oak Park
This week some friends dropped by the house and gave me a report on some research they had done into the spiritual history of this area. The cover of their report contained a riveting phrase: “Making it hard to go to hell from Oak Park.”
I understand what they meant, but in a sense God has already done that. He’s made it hard to go to hell from Oak Park. You can do it, and many Oak Parkers are doing it, but 2000 years ago God put a stop sign on the road to hell. The stop sign is in the shape of a Cross. You can ignore if you wish and take your chances. Or you can stop in your tracks and set out on the road to heaven.
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. By the same token, the road to heaven is paved with the blood of Christ. Which road are you traveling?
This morning James Warner dropped by my office and gave me a cartoon he clipped from the Wall Street Journal this week. It shows a man walking up the stairs toward the gates of heaven. Above the gate is a sign with two words: “No Deals.” This time the Journal got it absolutely right. God makes no deals when it comes to heaven. You either enter by way of the Cross or you don’t enter at all.
“Only Your Dyin’ Will Tell”
I began by quoting the words of John Lennon in his song “Imagine.” Let me end by quoting the words of a song made famous by another rock group, this one called Blood, Sweat and Tears. In the 60s they wrote a song called “And When I Die” that hit the top of the charts. The song grabs the mind because it speculates on what happens after we die. One verse contains these words: “I swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell, but you’ll never know by living, only your dyin’ will tell.”
I can’t vouch for the first part of that sentence, but the last part is exactly right. You’ll never know the truth about heaven and hell until the moment you die, and then it will be too late to do anything about it.
If you intend to go to heaven, you need to do something about it now.
You will live forever, somewhere! Will it be in the eternal joy of heaven? Or will you suffer unending misery in hell?
Which will it be for you?