Questions on ‘heaven’

In my message “On Earth as it is in Heaven” on Sunday, January 5, 2020, I touched upon a number of themes relating to what the bible says about ‘heaven and earth’. I welcomed feedback and questions, and received a number of questions, which I will respond to here.

The questions are:

  1. What does it mean that Jesus ascended into heaven?
  2. What happens when we die? Are we put in a holding pattern until the second coming and the new earth?
  3. Where is hell?
  4. There are many that say they have been to heaven and back (there are books and movies).  How is this possible? You hear before people die they see “the Light”, with the thinking of the new earth being heaven, how is this? What is this?

What does it mean that Jesus ascended into heaven?

In Luke 24:51 we read that Jesus “was taken up into heaven.” In Acts 1:9 we read that Jesus “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight.” The angels that appear explain that “Jesus has been taken from you into heaven”. These words seem to say that heaven is ‘up there’.

As I explained in the message, after being separated from God and paradise, humans began to conceive of God and the gods as in the sky (heavens). In their mind there was a hierarchy. Experientially God is over us, and death (the grave, punishment) is below us. The higher you were, the more authority and power you had; the lower you were, the weaker you were. God becomes human in Jesus; Jesus lowers Himself into space and time (Ephesians 4:9), and worked within those limits. God is speaking to us in our sin-confused thinking, using our language to explain that He is in the highest place – the Most High God – with heaven(s) as His throne and earth as His footstool. Jesus did not ascend up because that is actually where God is and lives (God is both beyond creation, and everywhere within in). He ascended to God’s throne, “seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion…” with “all things under his feet” (Ephesians 1:19-23). Jesus went up (ascended) to teach us this important spiritual truth: He is in the highest position, all authority up there and down here (i.e. heaven and earth) has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18).

The bible speaks in human language and terms to help us understand. But God is not actually ‘up there’, and Jesus is actually ‘with us always’ (Matthew 28:20). The best way to interpret ‘He ascended into heaven’ is ‘He went to be with God!’ and ‘He rules with God over all creation – heavens and earth’.

What happens when we die? Are we put in a holding pattern until the second coming and the new earth?

The bible does not give us specific details about what happens when we die. Some verses suggest that we go to paradise right away (“today you will be with me in paradise”, Luke 23:43) For what its worth, Jesus tells a fictional story (parable) that describes a poor man Lazarus comforted at Abraham’s side, and separated by a great chasm from a rich man in torment in Hades (“in agony in this fire”, Luke 16:24). Because this is a parable, we need to be cautious in putting too much doctrinal weight into its details.

In the book of Revelation we read of the souls of believers under the altar (Revelation 6:9-11). This is the altar in God’s heavenly throne room, as seen in Revelation 4:1ff. The final judgment has not occurred yet, and they are given white robes and told to wait. Because this is a vision, we cannot read it literally (are they actually under the altar?). But what it tells us is that those who die in the Lord go to be with God, and wait with God in His blessing (white robes) until God’s purpose on earth is complete. I suspect it is not the same kind of long wait that we experience on earth. It is described as “a little longer” (Revelation 6:11), and with God (where they are) a thousand years is like a day.

Paul was open and eager to go and be “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). But he knew that as long as he had a purpose on earth, he would not die.

So yes, it seems we are put into a “holding pattern” after we die, but what that holding pattern is like is unclear… other than we know we are “with Christ”. And that’s got to be ‘very good’.

Where is hell?
The bible does not give an actual location for Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Tartarus (the bible words/ideas sometimes translated by the Anglo Saxon word ‘hell’). Sheol was usually an actual grave or pit where dead bodies were buried. Gehenna was an actual valley outside of Jerusalem, a location condemned because of child sacrifice in the past, and a place where garbage was thrown, worms and fire were constant, and the dishonoured dead were thrown. In Greek mythology Hades (Matthew 16:18) was underground, and the deepest part of Hades was called Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4. Both were the places of punishment.

Jesus describes Gehenna as where “the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:47-48). This is a quote from Isaiah 66:24, which describes the final judgment. In John’s vision he describes the ‘second (ultimate) death’ as a “fiery lake of burning sulfur” (Revelation 21:8). These verses do not tell us where; they use dramatic language to describe how final and complete the final judgment will be.

Because the authors of scripture, inspired by God, use figurative language to describe the experience of final judgment, we need to be very careful when we try to specify what it is, and where it is. It is my belief that whatever is meant by ‘Gehenna’ and ‘Hades’, it is not located in God’s ‘very good’ creation, either in the heavens above or on the earth or under the earth. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. There is no mention of God creating a third area called hell. The final judgment is being removed from God’s good creation, not sent to another part of it. I have no idea where ‘hell’ is because I think it is a confusing and misleading question.

Hell is not a word in the bible; it is an English translation of Sheol (the Jewish concept of the grave), Gehenna (an actual place outside of Jerusalem where garbage and the condemned dead were cast) and Hades and Tartarus (Greek mythology that the Jews adopted to describe the final judgment).

I prefer to speak of ‘final judgment’ rather than hell. I do believe in a final judgment, and I do believe that not everyone will enter the new creation. But we stand on the other side of centuries of graphic and speculative imaginings about hell (like Dante’s Inferno) based on literalistic readings of visions, symbols, images and metaphors in the bible that were not meant to literally describe the final judgment but to impress on us the seriousness of the final judgment. If someone asks me if I believe in ‘hell’, all I can say is that I believe in whatever Jesus meant when He referred to Gehenna and Hades, and not what subsequent generations of believers have imagined that to mean.

There are many that say they have been to heaven and back (there are books and movies).  How is this possible? You hear before people die they see “the Light”, with the thinking of the new earth being heaven, how is this? What is this?

There really is no way to answer this. These are unprovable experiences which some sadly have made up. Perhaps some have true experiences, but we will never know. I do not reject them, but neither do I put much weight on them. Paul describes his own ‘heavenly experience’ (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). We do not need to affirm or deny these stories, they can stay on the shelf as interesting possibilities that may or may not reflect what the truth says, but we should not treat them as authoritative.

One Comment

  1. Great article, learned a lot! Wish I had been there!

    Your second question was a point of great conversation for me at Tyndale – I’ve always believed that God is the God of not just our Earth, but of the entire Cosmos. A Being of such magnitude could not be inside the dimension of time, so if we go to “be with God” after death, holding pattern or not, would we no longer be confined within the mortal understanding of linear time-flow?

    Perhaps its possible that the moment after death, we are with the Lord on judgement day, the second coming, and New Earth. And we arrive there the same moment our ancestors from millennia ago arrive, with no sense of “holding pattern” or a purgatorial state.

    The revelations of Revelations 6 has thrown me for a loop in the past regarding the “wait a little longer”, but I like how you put it – it is a vision, meant to illustrate our eschatology and intentionally revealed so that we may read and quote it for 1000s of years. After all, in Moses’ vision of Genesis, God didn’t feel the need to mention microbiology or powering the stars via nuclear fusion. Perhaps “wait a little longer” was as much for us as those souls “under the altar”.

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