Most popular concepts about heaven and hell do not come from the Bible, but from Greek philosophy and medieval writings like Dante’s Inferno. Many Christians believe that heaven is a place where they will spend eternity. However, the Bible indicates that the eternal home for believers will be on the new earth, specifically in the holy city called New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1-4).
The Bible Refers to Three Heavens – Not Just One
In the Bible, the word “heaven” often refers to the atmosphere, or the sky or the air, where the birds fly (Matthew 6:26, 8:20). This is the first heaven. The second heaven is outer space, where the sun, moon, planets, and stars are (Hebrews 1:10-11, 2 Peter 3:7-12). The third heaven is the place where God’s glory is localized, and where departed believers await Christ’s Second Coming (2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Revelation 4:1-11, 8:1-6, 16:11).
The Current Heavens Will be Destroyed
The Bible says that heaven will pass away, meaning the first and second heavens. The entire universe, except for the third heaven, will be destroyed, along with the sin in it (which is why we need a new universe). Then a new untainted universe will be created, including a new earth with the New Jerusalem (Matthew 5:18, 24:35, 2 Peter 3:10, Revelation 21:13). Neither the Lord Jesus Christ (currently in Heaven) nor His believers will spend eternity in the third heaven. Instead they will spend eternity on the new earth (Revelation 21-22).
God’s Plan for Man
God created the earth and then he created man for it–to live on it and fill it; i.e., he gave us bodies and a planet on which to use those bodies. If Adam and Eve had not sinned, this present earth is where they would have spent eternity. However, since man chose to sin and taint the earth, a new one will be required for his eternal dwelling.
The New Earth
The new earth will be a wonderful and beautiful place where we will serve Christ forever (Revelation 21-22). It will have streets and buildings of gold and precious stones, and the New Jerusalem will be the world capital. It will be perfect, with no more death, no more pain, and no more tears.
It is correct to say that God and His Son Jesus currently live in heaven, that believers go to heaven when they die, and that believers who have died are now in heaven with Christ, but it’s a temporary dwelling place. We have trouble explaining concepts about eternity. It’s difficult to put into words because of our concepts of reality here on earth–physical and scientific concepts, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, etc. Eternity is an existence not restricted by space or time, and it’s hard for us to understand.
For example, look back at the first sentence of the previous paragraph where I used the words “currently,” “when,” and “now.” All of these words deal with time, and we can’t imagine writing or speaking about an existence where there is no time. Yet, in eternity, somehow, it’s like everything happens all at the same “time.” Likewise, we would have difficulty talking about an existence where there is no space. The words “here,” “there,” and “place” wouldn’t apply because somehow all of that stuff that’s happening at the same “time” is also happening in the same “place.”
According to medieval literature, hell is a place where people’s skin is on fire; fire shoots from people’s noses, mouths, eyes, and ears; the physical pain is worse than any torture in this life; and, that pain is intolerable and never lessens. However, the truth is that the torments of hell are never described in the Bible. The Bible contains three key passages on Hell:
1) The Rich Man, Lazarus, and Abraham (Luke 16:19-31)
All we know is that the rich man is in a fiery environment, but we really don’t know the level of his torment.
2) The Smoke of Their Torment Ascends Forever (Revelation 14:11)
All who take the mark of the beast during the Tribulation will be tormented, the smoke of their torment ascends forever, and they have no rest day or night. The torment in the lake of fire for unbelievers from the Tribulation will be eternal. We don’t really know the nature or extent of their suffering, whether it will fluctuate in magnitude, or whether the torment will vary from person to person.
3) Mocking New Arrivals in Hell (Isaiah 14:9-11)
It seems that people in Sheol mock each other daily, and forever, in the lake of fire. While being mocked, they will feel emotional pain, but perhaps while mocking, they will feel some sadistic delight, distracting them from their pain to a degree.
Where is Hell?
Hell is not where Satan, fallen angels, demons, and unbelievers will spend eternity. That is called the lake of fire. The location of hell is probably 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 where the lake of fire will be. It will probably have to be in a completely different place than the new earth and the new universe, since those new places will be completely free from sin and its remnants.
Two Extreme and Unbiblical Views about the Nature of the Suffering in Hell
Extreme View #1: The Suffering Will be Intolerable
Many Christians listen to preachers who have a medieval view of hell as a place of intolerable pain, worse than anything ever suffered here on earth.
Extreme View #2: No Humans Will Experience Any Suffering in Hell
Although the Bible teaches eternal torment for some, many cannot imagine that God would allow for eternal suffering. Some teach that all unbelievers will be annihilated, or completely destroyed (annihilationism). They will cease to exist. Others teach that the torment of unbelievers will be eternal, but that people have the opportunity to hear and believe the gospel after they die (postmortem conversion). So, although the lake of fire will be a place of eternal suffering, most people won’t go there. Still others teach that no human being will have the lake of fire as his eternal abode (universalism). Another view is that the suffering will be unconscious.
The Truth: The Torment in the Lake of Fire Will be Tolerable
One view says that the torment in the lake of fire will be mental and spiritual, but not physical. It will consist of mental and spiritual anguish, regret, an abiding sense of loss, and permanent separation from God and all that is good, 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 bearable (Matthew 11:22-24). (However, I don’t think this matters much. Eternal suffering is eternal suffering.)
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–constant maximum suffering with no breaks or escape. Such suffering could not be described as “tolerable” or “more tolerable.” The degree of torment may be based in part on how much revelation from God a person rejected.
Practical Concerns about Hell
If we teach that the torment in the lake of fire will be worse than what the Bible says, these practical problems result:
1) We hinder our evangelistic efforts with some (unless we do not share our view of the lake of fire). If we present a view of hell that is far worse than the Bible portrays, unbelievers may be repelled from Christianity entirely. They rationalize that nothing could be worse than what Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot did.
2) The 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 with works salvation, but not so well with justification by faith alone.
If our view of hell is too lenient, there are also practical concerns:
1) If we were to teach annihilationism or no conscious torment, unbelievers would 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. Many people are not too bothered by an eternal loss of consciousness or ceasing to exist.
2) Unbelievers might doubt the truthfulness of the Bible. If they know that the Bible speaks of eternal torment, and yet we say that there is not eternal torment, then how does he know if anything else in the Bible is true?
Heaven has three main meanings in Scripture: the sky, outer space, 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. We will spend eternity on the new earth with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prior to Jesus’ ascension into heaven, hell (Sheol, or 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 holds only 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.
Primary Source: “Clearing up Confusion about Heaven and Hell” by Bob Wilkin, Grace in Focus, March / April 2017