Jeffrey Burton Russell is the author of a book entitled, Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It. According to Russell, those who identify themselves as Christians in the United States have only a vague and superstitious concept of heaven. “It’s not that heaven is deteriorating,” says Russell, “but we are.”
The problem isn’t that people don’t believe in heaven. They do. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll, 71 % of Americans believe in heaven and 64% believe in hell. Those percentages have dropped some over the past 50 years, but they still remain quite high. However, what people mean when they speak about heaven and hell has changed a lot.
Fifty years ago, most people had baseless superstitious ideas about heaven; those ideas included saved people becoming angels, floating on clouds, and playing harps. Today, many people choose to think of heaven as a vague condition of happiness, which may be temporary and lead to another plane of existence such as reincarnation. The Bible teaching that heaven and hell are realms in which souls will dwell for eternity is lost on modern America. And many Americans apparently consider themselves too sophisticated to believe that heaven and hell are places of reward and punishment, respectively.
The Bible is clear that God wants us to be motivated to go to heaven and to avoid hell (read 2 Peter 3:13-14 and Mark 9:43-48). To be properly motivated, it is crucial that we maintain a clear and correct understanding of heaven and hell. We must not trade Biblical concepts for the empty superstitions of popular culture. Here are some truths that need to be firmly believed.
1. Heaven and hell are both rewards. Heaven is a reward for the righteous and hell is a reward for the unrighteous. Jesus promised His disciples that if they would suffer persecution for His name they would receive a great “reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). Comparing Christianity to an athletic contest Paul wrote, “And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:25). In Matthew 16:27, Jesus said, “the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.”
2. Heaven and hell are both permanent. In heaven, the saved will enjoy “an enduring possession” (Hebrews 10:34) described as “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away” (1 Peter 1:4). Heaven is an eternal home. The saved will inhabit “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). Hell, on the other hand, is described as everlasting punishment. At the Judgment, Jesus will send the unrighteous “into everlasting punishment” (Matthew 25:46). It is “the fire that shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:45). Those who go there will “be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
3. Heaven is a place of rest, but hell is a place where there is no rest. Heaven is described as “a rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). But for those in hell, “the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night” (Revelation 14:11).
4. The saved will reign with Christ in heaven. In heaven, it’s not just that the saved are treated like royalty, they are royalty! God’s word promises that “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Timothy 2:12), and that the saved “shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:9).
Heaven and hell will be as the Bible describes them, no matter how the concepts of men change. God’s children will so live as to gain “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven” (1 Peter 1:4)
– Steve Klein