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Heaven and Hell: What do they have in common?

1 March 2011 | by Gareth Edwards

Heaven and Hell: What do they have in common?

Our university lecturers set examination questions that began, ‘Compare and contrast…’ to draw out our knowledge of two related issues. I always found it easier to see the stark contrasts rather than identify the similarities. The same is true for Christians in discussions of heaven and hell. We immediately see the striking differences between the two and fail to notice their unifying theme. We think of them as polar opposites and so miss out on the important truth – both exist for God and His glory. This truth places our understanding of heaven and hell in their right biblical context.

Heaven and hell exist

People are generally confused about man’s eternal destiny. A survey in the UK[1] found that 70% believed human beings have a soul and yet only 53% believed in life after death including 27% who believed in reincarnation. Although 55% believed in heaven, their other answers showed many did not think of it as a real place. Widespread belief in man having a soul is not matched by belief in life after death and there was no agreement about where that life would be lived or what heaven actually is. They were not even asked about hell.

The Bible teaches that heaven and hell are real places (Luke 16:19-31) where the souls of men and, after the resurrection, their bodies as well, spend eternity. Heaven and hell are described as having a precise location within God’s creation, although where they are is unknown to men. All things are created by God and exist by His will alone (Rev. 4:11). Heaven and hell therefore exist as God created realities; as real as this earth. However, because these two places are far beyond our experience, the Scripture uses highly picturesque words to speak about them. But these descriptions are not metaphors; they directly convey the truth about real places.

The Bible also says that heaven and hell exist as part of God’s creation for eternity. Revelation 21 describes a coming together of heaven and earth into a single eternal realm after the Day of Judgement. Equally, terms associated with hell clearly teach its eternal existence (see 2 Thess. 1:9, Matt. 25:41, 46). Heaven and hell are real places created by God to fulfil His eternal purposes.

For God

Heaven and hell both experience God’s presence. They are stages upon which God demonstrates His attributes and carries out His will. They exist for God.

That God is present in heaven is obvious but His presence in hell might appear to contradict the Bible. 2 Thessalonians 1:9 says, ‘They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord…’ (but note the alternative rendering ‘…eternal destruction that comes from…’). Jesus will say to sinners in the Day of Judgement, ‘Depart from me’ (Matt. 7:23, 25:41 and Luke 13:27). Yet, the damned are tormented ‘in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb’ (Rev. 14:10). Similarly, David declares, ‘Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there?’ (Ps. 139:7-8). How can we reconcile these verses? Well, distance between individuals is not always understood in terms of physical proximity. I have friends I am very close to who live on the other side of the world. On the other hand I have shared a room with people when the distance between us has been greater than the distance between the stars! God is not absent from hell but the experience of His presence is very different to that in heaven. In hell, God’s presence only serves to underline how far short of His glory men have fallen (Rom. 3:23) and therefore how far from knowing Him they are.

Hell is being in God’s presence as your Judge, eternally separated from Him by sin and constantly the object of wrath. Heaven is being in God’s presence as your Father whose love constantly draws you into deeper fellowship with Him. As Joel Beeke says, ‘Heaven is glorious because it is where God is all in all. Hell is infernal because it is where God manifests His righteous wrath.’[2] The different ways in which God’s presence operates makes the difference between heaven and hell. Hendriksen underlines this, ‘Hell is hell because God is there, God in all his wrath (Hebrews 12:29; Revelation 6:16). Heaven is heaven because God is there, God in all his love.’[3] (Psalm 16:11) Heaven and hell exist for God; His presence is actively known in both.

And His glory

God’s great eternal purpose is to bring glory to His name. He is present everywhere to display the magnificence of His being. Therefore both heaven and hell exist for His glory.

Heaven is where God most clearly reveals Himself in the fullness of His being and is often referred to as ‘glory’ (Ps. 73:24; Heb. 2:10). It is the place where His glory is fully manifested and therefore where He is most praised. But God is also praised for the demonstration of His judgement and wrath in hell (Rev. 11:17-18; 15:3-4; 16:5-6). He is glorified in casting men into hell (Luke 12:5) as much as in bringing many to heaven (Heb. 2:10). Edward Donnelly rightly says, ‘In hell, and we can say this only in trembling reverence, God’s glory will be unveiled in new and amazing ways. His kingly authority will be seen more clearly than has ever been possible before. Fresh aspects of His holiness and justice will be revealed to His wondering people.’[4] Similarly, whilst showing the focus of heaven is not the happiness and pleasures of believers, Donnelly states, ‘Heaven exists for God’s own glory.’[5] God has created both heaven and hell as places where His presence will bring glory to His name.

Where does that leave me?

The contrasts between heaven and hell are obvious but what they share in common is equally important. Both places exist for God and His glory. That has implications for us.

  1. If you have not repented of your sin and trusted in Jesus Christ as your Saviour, be sure hell awaits you. Your continued rejection of Jesus will not rob God of His glory but merely confirm His justice in making you an object of His wrath for eternity. But you could still experience the loving presence of God in heaven, if you come to know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour. Your urgent need is to cry out to the Lord for forgiveness.
  2. Believers should not be afraid to speak about hell. Christians often act as if the doctrine of eternal punishment tarnishes God’s image. Some say they could never enjoy heaven if they knew others were suffering in hell. The thought of people going to hell should disturb us and drive us to greater prayer and evangelistic zeal. However, we should not doubt that hell is as essential to God’s glory as heaven is. When we are in heaven, we will praise Him that it is so.

In the end, it is not the differences between heaven and hell that matter most; it’s what they have in common. They exist for God and His glory.

Gareth Edwards is the minister of Hill Park Evangelical Baptist Church, Haverfordwest. A longer version of this article first appeared in The Gospel Witness.

[1] Survey of 2,060 adults carried out by ComRes in October and November, 2008 for Theos a public theology think tank.

[2] Joel R. Beeke, Living for God’s Glory (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2008) p.42.

[3] William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter (Grand rapids: Baker Books, 1995) p.202.

[4] Edward Donnelly, Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001) p.24.

[5] Ibid., p.77.