“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Hope. It comforts us. It excites us. It motivates us. It moves us. It is and has always been alive in the spirits of God’s people. God’s promises are hope. The gospel is hope.
A focus on going to heaven is fundamental to the mindset and worldview of most Christians I know – that my primary goal in life should be to go to heaven, that I should be baptized for the remission of my sins so I can go to heaven, that I should marry someone who will help me go to heaven, that I should share the gospel so that others will go to heaven with me. But I discovered something gradually over the last decade.
The Bible never says a word about any of us going to heaven.
My understanding of eternity used to be that of a heaven and hell, an annihilated creation, and a spiritual state of existence I could not comprehend. Over time, I began to realize that much of what I thought about “the end” came from historical art, extra-biblical literature, pop culture, and human tradition rather than just what the Bible actually says.
Before we get to specifics, I want to disclaim. I expect my understanding of the end is undoubtedly still flawed, likely in some major ways. Peter writes that the prophets who prophecied about the Christ didn’t understand their own prophecies. When the Jews hoped for a Messiah and searched the scriptures for information about that hope, they regarded much of what was figurative as literal, and what was literal as figurative. When dealing with eschatological subjects (stuff concerning final things), we surely are all going to make similar mistakes.
I believe the information that has been revealed to us is meant to fuel our hope, not necessarily give a clear picture of exactly what will happen. Our understanding of these things also has little effect on what we should do about it, but it may change the way we think and talk about it. We ought to refine our hope to align as closely as possible to what the Bible actually says about things to come, and we ought not let differences in our understanding and conclusions here divide us. If our hope is in Christ, we are united in one hope.
I. EVERYONE WILL RISE FROM THE DEAD
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
The need for salvation is the need to be saved from something. The law of sin and death was revealed to the first humans God created. If you sin, you will surely die. They sinned. So did everyone else. So did I. So did you. We are condemned to die, and it is death itself that Jesus died to save us from.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The purpose of the death on the cross was to give humans eternal life. God’s people die like everyone else, but the Bible also says that we will rise from the dead. In fact, it says that EVERYONE will rise from the dead!
Daniel spoke of some who would be raised to everlasting life, and others would be raised to everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2). Jesus said that all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth to either a resurrection of life or judgement (John 5:28-29). Paul proclaimed with certainty that there would be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked (Acts 24:15).
Death is not the end for anyone, but not everyone will live forever. Those of us who do receive eternal life will not exist as some disembodied spirit. There will be a resurrection. We will have bodies. As to exactly what the nature of those bodies will be, we do not know fully. Paul’s response to someone asking, “And with what kind of body do they come?” is, “You fool!” I’m not quite sure what to make of that. It’s certainly a question I have. I am also certainly a fool. Paul’s description of our resurrection bodies that he follows this with in 1 Corinthians 15 is magnificent, exciting, and hopeful. “We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” Still, I don’t think Paul’s description goes very far in helping us really understand much of anything in detail. I do think we can gain some more specific insight by considering what we know about the resurrected Christ.
“For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.”
His tomb is empty. The body they killed was reanimated. He ascended, and disappeared behind a cloud with a promise to return at the end. The remains of the body of Jesus are not anywhere on the earth today. He is alive in his body. It’s the body he lived in. It’s the body he died in. It’s the body they buried. It’s the body they discovered was missing from his grave. He was seen alive by people who knew him, who then testified they had seen him, who gave up their lives for refusing to deny that eyewitness testimony. They recognized him (except when he kept them from doing so). He talked with them. He ate a meal with them. He ate fish cooked on a fire with his some of his disciples. He walked with them. They touched him. His mother embraced him.
The resurrection of Jesus fills me with hope. Hope to live forever with my family. Hope to eat meals with my friends. Hope to embrace my mother. Hope that I will be able fall down on my face at the feet of the glorious resurrected King. To walk with him. To talk with him. To love. To be loved.
II. THE LOST WILL BE NO MORE
“And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Death is not the end for anyone, but not everyone will live forever. Eternal life is promised only to the saved. The hope of the resurrection is the reason Christians do not need to fear death. Jesus taught that there is something else to fear, or rather someone else.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in [Gehenna].”
I do not believe in hell, at least in the sense that most Christians I’ve ever known mean when they refer to hell. The word “Gehenna” is usually the word translated “hell”. It is actually a reference to the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem with a sordid history involving human sacrifice by fire, which serves as an image for the fate of the lost.
The Bible never says that anyone will suffer eternally, yet I have heard that very thing taught countless times by people whose knowledge of the word I esteem highly. It is a concept that pervades art and literature throughout Christian history from Dante’s Inferno to Milton’s Paradise Lost to Edwards’ Sinners In The Hands of an Angry God. I’m not sure where the idea for the eternal suffering of the lost originated, but as far as I can tell it is little more than a man-made fantasy. The Bible doesn’t ever say there will be eternal suffering for the lost. Period. It doesn’t say it. The only way to believe there will be eternal suffering is to believe something the Bible doesn’t say.
The Bible also does not say that the souls of the lost cannot or will not be destroyed, but I often hear this taught as well. Quite the opposite in fact, it tells us to fear the one who has the power destroy body and soul in Gehenna. The Bible says in Psalm 37 and in many other places that the wicked will be no more, that they will perish, that they will be destroyed. Destruction CAN sometimes refer to a state of ruin, and is not necessarily an utter annihilation from existence, but I see no reason based on what else the Bible says to conclude that the lost will continue to exist in any state.
In Matthew 18:8-9 and Matthew 25:41, Jesus says that the fate of those who are condemed will be “eternal fire”. He also calls it “the [Gehenna] of fire”. Jude uses this same image when he describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as “the punishment of eternal fire” (Jude 5-7). The phrase “eternal fire” does not necessarily refer to a fire that will literally never stop burning. It is eternal because of the complete and permanent destruction it brings. In 2 Peter 2:6 the apostle writes that God “condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter”. In Genesis 19 we read about Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by what Jude calls eternal fire, and Jesus also says the lost will suffer the punishment of eternal fire. This is similar to what I believe the prophet does in Isaiah 66:24 when he says, “their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched”. Jesus later references Isaiah’s words in describing the fate of the lost. It’s not that people will literally be eaten by undying worms and burned with fire perpetually forever, but unlike when we die our first death, knowing that there will come a time of resurrection for all, their destruction at the judgement will be permanent, complete, and unstoppable.
“But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”
2 Peter 3:7
The means of that destruction does appear to be a literal fire, but as discussed in the final section of this post, it is not a fire that is literally unending. The fire that will consume the earth is also the fire that will destroy the lost, whether they will remain on the ground to be consumed after the resurrection, or lifted up for judgement and cast down into the flames. If you don’t believe the earth will burn forever, is it reasonable to assume that the lost will?
I often see passages from the book of Revelation referenced in discussions about the nature of hell. Relevation 19:20, Revelation 20:14-15, and Revelation 21:8 all make mention of someone or something being cast into the lake of fire. Revelation 14 says, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, […] he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” It isn’t my purpose here to explain the book of Revelation. I have a hard time understanding that book myself, and lean very heavily on what others say about its meaning. It does bother me that some of the people that I know who use these as core scriptures to provide a literal description of the eternal fate of the lost, will also at other times say that Revelation is a highly figurative book not meant to be taken literally. They emphasize that it describes “the things which must soon take place”, as mentioned in the very first verse of the book, rather than what will happen at the end. It is intellectually dishonest to take these passages out of context and use them to support a literal eternal hell. If these passages about the wicked being cast into fire and the “second death” do make some sort of figurative allusion to the literal eternal fate of the lost, consider how that may be related to the words of Peter, that as the entire earth is consumed in fire, so will ungodly men be with it.
“These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.”
2 Thessalonians 1:9
Eternal punishment away from God’s presence can be interpreted in the context of presuming the souls of the lost will continue to exist permanently (which the Bible does not teach), or in the context of the finality of the body and soul ceasing to exist permanently (which we have already seen is something that Jesus makes a point of mentioning that God can do). Permanent destruction is eternal punishment. How we interpret 2 Thessalonians 1:9 and Matthew 25:46 ought to be based on the rest of what scripture says about the fate of the lost, not an embellishment of what Jesus said when he referenced the Valley of Hinnom, or a pseudo-literal interpretation of what the Bible says in Revelation.
Our souls aren’t destroyed when we die, but Jesus said they can be destroyed in Gehenna. Why then should we conclude that no souls will be? And if the fire that destroys the earth will not burn forever, how can we conclude that the lost will? Concerning the eternal fire that Jesus spoke about in the context of judgement, why then is it described as eternal? Is it that it literally burns forever, or just that it is the means of the eternal punishment?
III. THE SAVED WILL INHERIT THE EARTH
I don’t want to go to heaven, but let me be clear about something. If I’m wrong about what I say here, and “heaven” actually is a place where God’s people will “go”, then I absolutely want to go to heaven! I also want the way I think and talk about our eternal home to be consistent with what the Bible actually says.
The word “heaven” or “the heavens” in the Bible can sometimes simply refer to the sky. The Bible also uses the word to refer to God’s realm, the exalted place where God is. Jesus said that the Father is in heaven. God’s angels are said to be in heaven as well. Our reward is there. It is where we accumulate incorruptible treasure. Our names are recorded there. Our citizenship is there. Our inheritance is there. While the Bible does not say we will go there, so much of what is promised to us, so much of what we hope for, is there! Doesn’t it follow that we will be too?
“The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.”
The law of sin and death has resulted in a curse not only condemning humans to die, but subjecting the earth itself to corruption. We can only guess and speculate as to the extent of this. When the garden of Eden was planted, God gave the produce of the ground to both man and beast as food. There is no mention of humans or animals eating the meat of other living creatures, and it is my understanding that most carnivores are technically capable of surviving on a diet without meat. When man sinned, God gave the first man and woman animal skins as clothing, and soon, mankind began offering animal sacrifices to God. It is not only humans who die as a result of man’s sin. God also cursed the ground, and told the man he would endure toil in order to grow food, and that it would not yield for him in the way it had previously. The earth we live in today is filled with danger, with natural disasters, and with violence, perhaps all a result of the degradation it has faced because of man’s sin. When Paul talks about the whole creation suffering the pains of childbirth until now, I think he is drawing a comparison between the consequence that the woman was given for sin, that “in pain you will bring forth children”, and the corruption of the peaceful perfection of the creation they experienced in Eden. We await the redemption of our body, and the creation waits for redemption with us.
“Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.’ For when they maintain this, it escapes their notice that by the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by water, through which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water. But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.”
2 Peter 3:3-13
The earth is going to be destroyed, and the lost with it. I typically hear it taught that the destruction of the earth will result in it no longer existing while the destruction of lost souls will result in a continuing state of eternal existence, albeit a horrifying one. I actually think the Bible indicates it will be the other way around. Peter points out that earth has already been destroyed once! In Genesis 8, we read about God opening up the fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the sky to at least partially bring the earth back to its pre-created state, a formless and void surface of the deep. The ark and those who were saved by it were lifted above the highest mountain, then lowered back down to a planet cleansed of the worst of the wickedness of man. When the waters receded, God said, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” God even references the cursed ground here, and some have even suggested that whatever the curse of the ground involved no longer applied after the flood.
Peter juxtaposes the coming destruction of the earth alongside this earlier destruction, but says that the means of that destruction will be fire instead of water. As the waters destroyed the earth, so will fire destroy it again someday. Peter also says there will be a new heavens (the sky) and earth. Consider HOW the earth was destroyed by water. The surface was covered, and the earth was renewed, brought back to a newly formed state without the wickedness of the people referred to at the beginning of Genesis 6. The earth will again be destroyed, by fire next time. The ungodly will be consumed with it, and then the earth will be renewed. We are looking forward to that new heavens and new earth.
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
After Jesus rose from the dead and spent some time on the earth appearing to and interacting with his disciples, he ascended into heaven. His disciples stared up until he disappeared into a cloud. An angel appeared to them and said, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The word for heaven here could be translated “the sky”, so it doesn’t necessarily mean what we typically mean when we say heaven (see Psalm 19:1). What the angel says fits nicely alongside Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, that Jesus will descend from heaven and we will meet him the the clouds.
Before his death, Jesus also had said to his disciples, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Jesus went with a promise to return. He says he will receive us when he does. Paul says will meet him in the clouds. “See,” someone may say, “We will leave the earth before it burns!” Absolutely! Peter says that the fires of the earth’s destruction are reserved for the lost, so it follows that those of us who are to be saved will be lifted up, as the eight survivors of the flood were also lifted up. But what happens when the destruction is complete? Is there any indication that, like Noah and his family, we will descend back down to the surface of this earth when it is redeemed? Do we go to the place Jesus prepares, or does he bring it to us?
Admittedly, I think we are getting into very speculative territory at this point because we’re about to look at the book of Revelation. The fact that there is no indication in the Bible that we will “go” to heaven, and the fact that we read about the redemption of the earth has led me to seek out a better understanding of Jesus’ words about his going to prepare a place, and this is where I begin to think about the image of the holy city in Revelation 21. It is a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away”. The image is not of us going to heaven, but rather “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”. And the result? “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
I don’t want to go to heaven, but I long for the end, the beginning, the day when heaven is brought down to earth and all creation is redeemed. I want to fully realize the eternal promise of Immanuel, “God with us”, that a few experienced when they walked with and talked with him 2000 years ago. Until then, I will continue to sing songs about the hope of heaven as a metonymy for the new heavens and new earth, the beauty and majesty of the redeemed creation, the allegorical mansions and golden streets, the promised bliss, and eternal life.
03/17/2017 EDIT: Added reference and quotation, 2 Peter 2:6
03/20/2017 EDIT: Quotation marks added to the title to try to keep anyone from initially suspecting that I may not want to receive the eternal life with Jesus. While this is already made clear in the post itself, not everyone who sees it will read it, and those I love and respect have expressed concern about what impression the title alone may leave. Title now reads, I Don’t Want To “Go To Heaven”.
12/18/2017 EDIT: Changed title again out of respect for some people I love and respect who are still offended by it. I also reworded the second paragraph to put the emphasis on the mindset of most Christians rather than just myself. I do not begrudge any who have or promote the idea of us focusing on going to heaven. I am challenging the semantics of this, not the sentiment.
01/13/2017 EDIT: I changed the wording of the paragraph where I discuss the view of most Christians I know regarding the idea of going to heaven so that it was clear that I was explaining that view, not expressing my own current view.