By Bob Wilkin
Most people think that they know a lot about heaven and hell. But most popular ideas about heaven and hell do not actually come from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy, especially Plato, and from medieval writings like Dante’s Inferno.
Part 1: Heaven Isn’t What Most People Suppose
We sing many songs about heaven, like “When We All Get to Heaven” and “Heaven Is a Wonderful Place.”
But what are we thinking about when we sing such songs? Are we thinking about where we will be if we die before the Rapture? That is not what these songs are about. These songs are about where we will spend eternity.
The reason we sing about heaven as our eternal home is because most pastors and theologians believe it will be our eternal home. As a result, many churchgoers believe that as well. Most people in Christianity think that heaven will be the eternal home of Christians.
Most Fail to Recognize That There Are Three Heavens, Not One Heaven
The Greek word which is often translated as heaven is ouranos. Yes, it sometimes refers to the place where believers who have died are now.
But more often it refers to the place where the birds fly. It is sometimes translated as sky, sometimes as air, and sometimes as heaven when what is meant is the atmosphere around the earth. See Matt 6:26; 8:20; 13:32; Mark 4:4, 32; Luke 13:19; Acts 10:12; 11:6.
In Scripture that is the first heaven.
It also often refers to the place where the stars and the planets outside our solar system are. Outer space is often called the heavens. When God created “the heavens and the earth,” the heavens there refers to all the planets and the stars outside of earth. See Heb 1:10-11; 2 Pet 3:7, 10, 12; Rev 21:1.
In Scripture that is the second heaven.
Occasionally, but not often—except in the Book of Revelation—the term ouranos refers to the place where God’s glory is localized and where departed believers await Christ’s return. See 2 Cor 12:2-4; Rev 4:1-11; 8:1-6; 16:11.
That is called the third heaven in Scripture.
The Lord Jesus and His Apostles Said That the Current Heavens Will Be Destroyed
When the Scriptures say that “heaven will pass away,” they do not mean the third heaven will pass away. That refers to the first and second heavens.
The entire universe, except for the third heaven, will be destroyed and the taint of sin completely eliminated. Sin, I believe, is why we will get a new universe.
I’m not sure if the fall, and possibly the flood, resulted in change in the universe. Were asteroids and meteors part of the original design? Will they be part of the new heavens and the new earth?
Were all planets originally inhabitable? Will all planets be inhabitable in the eternal state?
The Bible does not answer these questions. But what it does say is that the first and second heavens will be destroyed and new untainted ones created. See Matt 5:18; 24:35; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 21:1-3.
Most Fail to Read the Bible to the Very End
When I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ we used to sing a song called, “Heaven Is a Wonderful Place.” We’d sing about how wonderful heaven is, how it is filled with glory and grace. “I want to see my Savior’s face! Heaven is a wonderful place. I want to go there.” Students and staff alike loved the song. But, unfortunately that song presents a flawed view of heaven.
Yes, heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. And yes my Savior is there right now. However, the song gives the distinct impression that we will spend eternity in heaven in the presence of Jesus. But neither the Lord Jesus nor believers will spend eternity in the third heaven. Jesus and believers will spend eternity on the new earth. The third heaven wasn’t made for humans, and humans weren’t made for the third heaven. See Revelation 21-22.
Most Fail to Carefully Read the First Three Chapters in the Bible
One simple way we know this is by reading the opening chapters of Genesis. If Adam and Eve had not sinned, then there is no question but Adam and Eve and all their descendants would have lived on earth at least until they filled it. Think about that for a moment. God’s design for human beings was not that they live in the third heaven forever. He didn’t design us for the third heaven. He gave us bodies and a planet on which to use those bodies. While angels arguably were designed to spend at least some of their time in the third heaven, humans were not.
The first and last chapters of the Bible make it clear that God has come to dwell with us on earth. If your aim has been to spend eternity in heaven, I hope you will give up on that ambition. That isn’t for you.
What Will the New Earth Be Like?
Revelation 21-22 tells us that it will be beautiful, with streets and buildings of gold. It will have lots of precious stones. The world capital, the New Jerusalem, will be bigger than most countries today.
Surely the new earth will be better than this earth and better even than the earth before the flood. Remember, before the flood people lived 900+ years even on a fallen world. The new earth will be perfect. And the people there will be perfect. No more sin. It will be an amazing place to live.
We Need to Change the Way We Think about Heaven
The way we think about heaven is wrong and we need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18). Our eternity is more glorious than we can imagine. But we should be imagining living in the right place to start with. And we should imagine serving the Lord Jesus Christ forever (Rev 22:5).
Most likely, believers who are now in heaven are longing for the Rapture. They want to be reunited with living believers. Earth is calling them home. They long to see Israel restored to its glorious position as God’s chosen nation. The thought of seeing the Lord Jesus sitting on the throne of David and ruling from Jerusalem thrills them. The Millennium is such a glorious time to anticipate. And the New Jerusalem, the twelve gates of pearl, the streets of gold, the nations, and the glorious sinless new earth in which righteousness dwells, is something to capture our imaginations, as well as the imaginations of those now in heaven.
Of course, no one in heaven is upset or disappointed. But they know that heaven is not their home. They realize they are just passing through on their way back to earth.
One day Sharon and I were walking with our friends Will and Sue Nece. I said something about how I longed to spend eternity in heaven. Will looked over and asked, “Why would you long for that? Our eternal home is the new earth, not heaven. Revelation 21-22 shows that.”
That was a eureka experience for me. I saw right away he was right. And I began to study more. And my enthusiasm grew for the life to come. I believe your enthusiasm will grow as well if you get your eternal focus on the new earth, where it should be.
Part 2: Hell Isn’t What Most People Suppose
Here are some popular ideas about hell that are not actually found anywhere in the Bible:
• People’s skin is on fire.
• Fire shoots from the noses, mouths, eyes, and ears of people.
• The physical pain is worse than any pain ever experienced in this life including childbirth, kidney stones, and torture.
• The pain is intolerable all the time and never lessens.
In an article on hell in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (NIDNTT) Bietenhard says, “In contrast with later Christian writings and ideas, the torments of hell are not described in the New Testament” (Vol 2, p. 209).
While it might be possible that some of those popular ideas are true, if they are not found in the Bible, we should back off on saying “Thus saith the Lord” when it comes to speculation, which is what that is.
Let’s start by looking at three leading passages in Scripture about hell.
Three Key Biblical Passages on Hell
The Rich Man, Lazarus, and Abraham (Luke 16:19-31)
We really don’t know the level of the rich man’s torment. Since he is able to carry on an intelligent conversation, it is highly unlikely his suffering is at the very top end of the scale. We do know his torment is conscious and that the flames in his environment are real flames.
But there is no hint here that the man is on fire. He is in a fiery environment,1 like being near a roaring fire or a lava flow.
We do not know how this man’s sufferings compares to others in Sheol. Is this the worst type of suffering there? Is this average? Is this the least?
This is but a snapshot of the man’s experience in Sheol. Is his experience like this all the time? Or might his experience be worse than this at times and better at other times? The Lord does not reveal that information.
The bottom line is that while this text gives us some ideas about what hell is like, it doesn’t tell us much.
The Smoke of Their Torment Ascends Forever (Revelation 14:11)
An angel reports that all who take the mark of the beast during the Tribulation will be tormented: “The smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”
This verse shows that the torment in the lake of fire for unbelievers from the Tribulation will be eternal. That they have no rest day or night (a figure of speech called merism) probably is not saying one way or the other whether the torment varies in intensity throughout each day, but about an inability to escape the torment. Torment will be a daily experience forever for those in the lake of fire.
Compare Rev 20:10, which uses the same language to say that the devil, the beast, and the false prophet “will be tormented night and day forever and ever [aiōnas tōn aiōnōn].”
The verse before Rev 14:11 speaks of fire and brimstone, which is the source of the smoke mentioned in v 11. There is no reason to believe that this is anything other than literal fire, brimstone, and smoke.
While we get some general idea here of what torment in the lake of fire will be like, there is no specificity. We don’t yet know how much the suffering will be, what the nature of the suffering will be, whether it will fluctuate in magnitude for each person, or whether the torment will vary from person to person.
Mocking New Arrivals in Hell (Isaiah 14:9-11)
This passage is little known, but adds some information about Sheol that we do not find in other texts.
The passage speaks of the king of Babylon going to Sheol (vv 9-11) as well as the fall of Lucifer when he led an angelic rebellion against God (vv 12-15).2
If there is some measure of pleasure in mocking new arrivals in Sheol, it seems likely that people in Sheol also mock each other daily. And it seems likely that they will mock each other for eternity in the lake of fire. This will cause emotional pain to the ones being mocked. But it will also cause a measure of sadistic delight for the ones doing the mocking. That won’t eliminate their torment. But it might well distract them from it to a degree.
Where Is Hell?
Hell (also called Hades, Sheol, Abbadon, and the Pit—and possibly the Abyss and Tartarus and Gehenna) is not the place where Satan, fallen angels, demons, and unbelievers will spend eternity. That is called the lake of fire.
The location of hell is almost certainly the center of the current earth. Whenever people died prior to Jesus’ ascension, they are said to have gone down. The only place down from the earth’s surface is under the earth. The earth’s core is molten, fitting the description of flames.
The Scriptures do not say or even hint where the lake of fire will be. Hypothetically, it might end up being in the center of the new earth. However, since the new earth and indeed the new universe will be free from sin and from its remnants, it is extremely likely that the lake of fire will be in a completely different place than the new earth and the new universe.
Two Extreme and Unbiblical Views About the Nature of the Suffering in Hell
Extreme View #1: The Suffering Will Be Intolerable
Most conservative Christians have a view of hell that is medieval in its origins. Their view of hell does not come from Bible passages on the subject.
Henry Buis writes, “There is a noticeable increase in the crudeness of the description of hell” in the Middle Ages.3 He goes on to tell of the descriptions of Venerable Bede (AD 673-735) and of Dante Alighieri (AD 1265-1321) in his famous poem Inferno. Bede speaks of flames coming out of people’s ears, eyes, nostrils, and even every pore of their skin.4
Many conservative Christians listen to preachers who have a medieval view of hell. These preachers speak of hell as a place of intolerable pain, of pain worse than anything ever suffered here on earth.
The medieval/conservative view is so horrendous that it is no wonder that liberals have developed various ways of taking the sting out of hell. However, today it is not simply liberals who believe that unbelievers will not be tormented forever. Many conservative Evangelicals now adopt this unbiblical view.
Extreme View #2: No Humans Will Experience Any Suffering in Hell
Many cannot imagine that God would allow for eternal suffering. So they create an eternal future which makes more sense to them.
There are several different ways in which Evangelicals speak of a future in which no one (or maybe just a small number of incorrigibles) suffers.
Annihilationism. Some teach that after the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15) all of unbelieving humans will be annihilated. That is, they will cease to exist. This view is called annihilationism, conditional immortality, or simply conditionalism.
The problem with this view, as with the ones which follow, is that it does not take the teachings of Scripture about eternal torment seriously.
Postmortem conversions. Others argue that the torment of unbelievers will be eternal, but that people have the opportunity to hear and believe the message of life after they die. Thus people die and go to a place of suffering in Sheol. While there, they should become quite open to the promise of life. But then one day they will appear before Jesus at the Great White Throne Judgment. If a person has not come to faith in Jesus by that time, the Lord Himself will share the message of life at that time, giving each person one last chance to be born again and to escape eternal torment.
The idea here is that most people will come to faith in Jesus and escape condemnation. Thus, while the lake of fire will indeed be a place of eternal suffering, most people won’t be there.
While this view is not universalism, it is close to it. Instead of few finding the way (Matt 7:13-14), most find the way, at least eventually.
Universalism. Still others indeed argue for universalism. In this view 100% of mankind enters the kingdom. No human being will have the lake of fire as his eternal abode.
In the past this view was widely rejected by conservative Evangelicals. The Bible clearly rejects this notion. However, over the past decade or two, an increasing number of Evangelicals hold this view.5
Once again, this view fails because it ignores or rejects the clear teaching of the Word of God.
Unconscious Torment. Another view is that the suffering will be unconscious. What is unconscious suffering? I don’t know. I suppose it is pain which a person is unaware that he is experiencing. But is it really pain if a person doesn’t feel it?
This view is not supported by Scripture either.
The Truth: The Torment in the Lake of Fire Will Be Tolerable
A view closer to mine than any of the preceding, yet still significantly different, is the view that the torment in the lake of fire will be mental and spiritual, but not physical. This view is a bit unique. In a book entitled Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, Boa and Bowman say: “We embrace the view that there will be endless torment in Hell, but it will be spiritual rather than physical in nature.”6 Here is how they define spiritual torment: “It will consist of spiritual or mental anguish, perhaps in the form of regret, an abiding sense of loss, and the devastation of permanent exile from God, the world, and all that is good, beautiful, whole, and meaningful.”7 Thus in their view there will be eternal suffering that is conscious, but it will not in any sense be physical.
A more accurate view is that the torment in the lake of fire will be physical, mental, and spiritual torment, but that all of it will be tolerable. None of it will be unbearable. See Matt 11:22, 24.
The Lord taught both degrees of joy in the kingdom and degrees of suffering in the lake of fire.
God is not going to give unbelievers an eternal experience that is unbearable. He could. He could set it up so people had level 10 suffering 24/7/365, with no breaks and no escape. But He will not do that. Such suffering could not be described as tolerable or more tolerable.
Which unbelievers get the more tolerable torment may surprise us. Those of Sodom and Gomorrah and Tyre and Sidon were notorious sinners. Yet their torment will be more tolerable than law abiding, legalistic, self-righteous Jews of the first century who rejected the Messiah when they saw and heard Him directly (Matt 11:22, 24). Degree of torment will be based in great part on how much revelation from God a person rejected.
Practical Concerns about Hell
There are practical problems if our view of hell involves too much or too little torment.
If we believe and teach that the torment in the lake of fire will be worse than what the Bible actually says, these practical problems result:
1. We will hinder our evangelistic efforts with some, if not many, people (unless we do not share our view of the lake of fire). If an unbeliever is presented a view of hell that is far worse than the Bible portrays, he may be repelled from Christianity entirely. Many people under forty today are turned off by the medieval view of hell. They figure that nothing could be worse than what Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot did. They cannot conceive of God as doing something to people that is more painful that what these men did. Thus they reject hell, and sometimes with it heaven, the kingdom, life after death, and Christianity.
2. A secondary problem is that this teaching of hell is normally not coupled with the message of justification by faith alone. Instead, it is routinely joined with a call to turn from one’s sins, give one’s life to Christ, follow Him, and serve Him. The message of an intolerable eternity fits well within works salvation, but not so well with justification by faith alone.
If our view of hell is too lenient there are also practical problems:
1. If a person teaches the view of annihilationism or no conscious torment, his listeners would certainly be less concerned about their eternal destiny and the possibility that they may be wrong than they would be if they had been presented with a Biblical view of hell and the lake of fire. There are many people who are not too bothered by an eternal loss of consciousness or ceasing to exist.
2. The listener might well doubt the truthfulness of the Bible. If the listener knows that the Bible speaks of eternal torment, and yet the evangelist speaking to him says there is no eternal torment, then how does he know if anything else the Bible says is true?
When an English reader of the Bible sees the words heaven and hell, he should not simply assume he knows what is meant.
Heaven has three main meanings in Scripture: the sky, outer space where the stars and planets are, and the place where God’s shekinah glory is and where believers who have died currently are.
The third heaven will not be the eternal dwelling place for believers. Believers will spend eternity on the new earth, which is where the Lord Jesus will be.
Prior to Jesus’ ascension into heaven, hell/Sheol/Hades was the place of all who had died, both believers and unbelievers.
Since Jesus’ ascension, there are no believers in hell/Sheol/Hades. It only holds unbelievers who have died.
The current experience of unbelievers in hell is bad, but bearable.
Unbelievers will spend eternity not in hell, but in the lake of fire.
The eternal experience of unbelievers in the lake of fire will be bad, but tolerable.
It is time that we move back to Scripture in order to understand what heaven and hell really are.
Bob Wilkin is Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society. He lives in Highland Village, TX with his wife of 40 years, Sharon. His latest book is What Is the Outer Darkness? (co-authored with Zane Hodges).
*This article is condensed from chapters 5&6 of The Ten Most Misunderstood Words in the Bible (Denton, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 2012).
1. The words “in this flame” mean he is living in a fiery place. It is hot there, hence his thirst. If he had been literally on fire as some might think, then he would not have been concerned about being thirsty.
2. It should be noted that many commentators suggest that vv 12-15 also refer to the king of Babylon. In this view the designations Lucifer (NKJV) should be translated as day star or morning star and is being used figuratively of an earthly king, not of Lucifer himself. However, there is good reason to believe that vv 12-15 do refer to Lucifer. Compare Ezek 28:12-15.
3. Henry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Philadelphia, PA: P&R Publishing, 1957).
4. Ibid., p. 67.
5. Brennan Manning, a promoter of contemplative spirituality, has promoted this view for years and has won many Evangelicals to his view. Many in the contemplative spirituality movement believe in either universalism or annihilationism. In March 2011 famed emerging church pastor Rob Bell, pastor of a church of 10,000, released a book in which he argues that unbelievers will not spend eternity in hell. Many others in the emerging church movement have rejected the idea of anyone being tormented forever.
6. Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), p. 119.
7. Ibid., p. 115.