A belief in heaven and hell is an important part of the Christian tradition. One may point out that too many Christians have become overly obsessed with the notions of an eternal existence in either heaven or hell, saying that they have lost sight of the present only to embrace something that has not yet taken hold. However, I would argue that it is not improper to spend significant amounts of time thinking about both heaven and hell.
Heaven is not just something that is off in the future. Heaven is something that we may begin to experience now. Heaven is another way of referring to the place where God dwells, or to God’s presence, or even God himself. If that is what heaven is, then heaven exists right now in the present. Everywhere we go we may find heaven because God’s presence is everywhere. However, we do not always have our eyes open wide enough to recognize the presence of God and his influence in our lives, in the lives of others, or in the creation. Where the presence of God is, there is heaven, because heaven is the presence of God.
However, this earthly recognition of heaven or of the kingdom of heaven as it is often called, would be without merit if it were not for the future hope of heaven as well. Heaven is not just something that is experienced on earth through the presence of God by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The reality of heaven on earth is that the present anticipates the future. Heaven is the presence of God and God’s presence will continue to exist for all time, even after we have died. In this way, we may continue to experience heaven after death and on into the future because the presence of God will never depart from us, and we will be with God forever. This is our future hope of heaven. It is both a present and a future reality. Those who have lost the future sense of heaven have lost hope.
Heaven, however, is more than just being with God. The reality of being in God’s presence leads to other great things as well. In scripture, we see that heaven will come to earth, and that the spiritual and the physical will be united as they ought to be with no more struggle. Heaven is not just a place where we can escape to when we die in order to avoid either hell, or the destruction of the earth. While it is true that the earth will one day be destroyed, this destruction is for purification and is part of the renewal process of restoring God’s good creation. All that is not good must be destroyed. In heaven, no good thing is destroyed. This is why earth becomes a part of heaven in the new creation. Earth was created good, and God will not give up on his good creation. Everything that was truly worth anything – that was truly good – on earth will continue to exist in heaven, or when heaven comes to earth. This is why Paul wrote that the creation was waiting in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. The creation will be liberated from destruction and decay. And people are a part of God’s good creation. Every person, every relationship, that was honoring to God will carry on into eternity. In heaven, no good thing is destroyed. We will exist as were meant to exist, and our existence will not just be a restoration of what we call “Eden,” or the innocent state of humanity. We are no longer infants without knowledge. We will have knowledge, but we will live in peace and holiness.
Just as everything that is truly good and remains in the image and reflection of God will continue to do so in the future, so everything that is evil and does not conform to the image and will of God will not continue on into the future. Everything that works against God will be destroyed, the devil, death, even people and parts of creation that defy Him. All that refuses to carry on in the presence of God will be isolated and separated from God. This is what humanity has struggled with all along. We have chosen to live separately from the presence of God and have not retained his image, but have distorted and perverted it. We have worshiped ourselves and the creation instead of the Creator. This is how one may experience hell on earth. Just as the kingdom of heaven is not only something that remains in the future, but has begun already and is even now inside of us according to Jesus, so hell is also something that is not just in the future, but may begin in this life. Every rebellion, every isolation, every turning away from God is hell. If one continues to follow these patterns in this life, then these patterns will eventually become permanent. The temporary hell will become a permanent hell.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis spoke of heaven and hell beginning in this life, and that the next life would be the continuation of what we had chosen in this life. He says that those who are in heaven at the last will look back on their life on earth and say that they had always been in heaven, and those who were in hell at the last would look back on their earthly life and say that they had always been in hell, and both would speak truthfully. Those who are in hell, then, lived life on earth in a weird sort of anticipation of ultimate damnation; and those who are in heaven, lived life on earth in anticipation of salvation. Both the damned and the saved experienced the end results of their choices before the end results were finally brought about. This is how, Lewis says, heaven and hell “work backwards.” He says that heaven works backwards from the future to the present in the life of the believer, making even the worst trials and persecutions bearable through hope and joy; and that hell works backwards in the sinner, contaminating even the most pleasurable of sins with the stain of the anticipation of damnation. N.T. Wright views hell to a certain degree as a place where humans lose the image of God and become less than human. All trace of the divine nature is removed from them as they have chosen to live as though it did not exist in them. He also views heaven as God’s space which will ultimately be rejoined with our space in the marriage of Christ and his church.
Just as it is important to view the kingdom of God as “is and is yet to come,” so it is also appropriate to view hell in this way. Though, hell would work in the opposite way of heaven. When heaven comes to earth, there is no more room for any traces of hell to remain. If heaven is the presence of God and hell is the absence of God’s presence, then the fact that heaven would come to earth would mean that hell would no longer have any place or hold here. The reason why we must embrace the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God as both present reality and future expectation is because this is what the writers of the New Testament proclaimed. This was the message of Christ, and the early church carried on his message. We must embrace heaven as now because we must carry on the mission Christ gave to us to proclaim the good news among the nations, ushering in God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. We must also remember that God’s kingdom comes ultimately by God’s power and that while we participate in God’s purposes, God ultimately brings them about. Also, the hope of a future heaven where no good thing is destroyed means that we will be able to see our lost loved ones who died in the Lord. They will be raised in the Lord along with us, and there will no longer be any stupid and hateful death that takes us away from our loved ones, destroying God’s good creation, and defying God and the image of God. We will be together again and it will be wonderful. God will restore all things, and death will be damned forever. Revelation says that death and hades and the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire. Fire is meant to purify, but they will be in this fire forever, indicating that there was nothing in them that could be refined. There was nothing gold about them that could emerge from the flames. They all melted away like wax in everlasting destruction. And through this final destruction, we will be rid of all our enemies forever. This belief in a future hell is one of the ways in which we are reminded of the surpassing greatness of the glory of Christ Jesus that will be revealed in us – a greatness that is greater than all of sin and death. A belief in hell helps us to realize that we need God. We need salvation. We need to live in a healthy fear and love of the holiness of God. A belief in heaven gives us hope that there is more to this life than what we currently see, and that in the end God will restore all things and be all in all.