Misconceptions about Heaven and Hell
Because there is so much confusion and incorrect teaching about both heaven and hell, we will start by digging into some of the most common false beliefs about both places. As always, we want to counter false ideas about these doctrines with the truth of the Bible. The most common misconceptions about heaven and hell have to do with their nature and purpose. There are many false ideas about what they will be like and what will happen there, but the word of God gives us clear pictures in both cases.
Here are a couple of common misconceptions about heaven:
Heaven is a spiritual place but not a physical place. This is a bit tricky because there is a sense in which heaven—as it exists right now—is a spiritual place. It is a real place (Jesus is there with his resurrected physical body!), but believers who have died are with Jesus in spirit only since the resurrection has not yet happened. But the heaven that we are talking about—the one that will last for all eternity—will be a very physical place. Christians will dwell in this place with physical resurrection bodies. In other words, heaven will not just be heaven; it will be a new heaven and a new earth.
Heaven will be boring. This misconception comes from the popular depictions of heaven with clouds, angels, and harps. If it were our eternal destiny to sit around on clouds all day playing harps, that might indeed be boring (unless you really enjoy playing the harp). Heaven, though, will be an eternal existence of joy, feasting, and growing in the knowledge of God and his new creation. There will be nothing boring about it!
Here are three common misconceptions about the doctrine—and reality—of hell:
Hell is where Satan reigns. Often in popular literature, movies, and cartoons, Satan (usually pictured with horns and a pitchfork) is portrayed as ruling over all of the people who are in hell. This portrayal is usually fairly mild, with Satan acting as a kind of taskmaster for people who are in hell. However, the Bible is clear that Satan will not have any special or exalted place for eternity—even in hell. Revelation 20 shows Satan finally cast into the lake of fire; he, too, will suffer the eternal punishment of divine wrath because of his rebellion against God and his hatred of God’s people.
Hell is a place of destruction, not punishment. Often, in order to make the concept of hell seem more acceptable, people teach that hell is ultimately not punishment but destruction. In other words, they try to make the argument that the Bible presents hell as simply the final death of people who reject Christ. This is not what the Bible teaches. Jesus and many of the apostles clearly use the language of “eternal punishment” to describe hell. The Bible clearly teaches an eternal, conscious punishment for those who reject Jesus Christ.
People in hell will get a second chance. In popular literature and thinking, there is often a tendency to teach that the doors of hell are locked from the inside—that even people in hell will always have a chance to repent and turn to Jesus. The Bible does not teach this; it says that every man and woman lives once, and after this life he or she stands in judgment before God (Heb. 9:27). We all will be judged eternally on the basis of what we do with Jesus Christ in this life, and there will be no second chances.
What Is Heaven?
Let’s now begin examining both heaven and hell more carefully. What is heaven? What is hell?
Consider Luke 23:32–43 carefully, focusing on the conversation that Jesus has with the criminal who looks to him in trust and belief. Note what Jesus says to him; consider what that means about heaven now and in the future. As we compare this passage from Luke 23 with other parts of the Bible, we see that there is a way to talk about heaven right now and a way to talk about heaven in the future.
Heaven now. Based on what we see in Scripture, heaven right now is a real place where God dwells and rules with the risen Lord Jesus at his right hand. The very fact that Jesus could say to the criminal who was crucified with him that he would be in “paradise” with him “today” (Luke 23:43) tells us that there is a place—which we call “heaven”— to which God’s people go when they die. We know that those who go to heaven now do not yet have their resurrected bodies; Paul makes it clear to us that the physical bodies of those who die wait in the ground for the resurrection from the dead (1 Cor. 15). But the Bible is insistent that when believers die, they are immediately with Jesus in heaven.
So heaven right now is a real place that is separate from this earth. The souls of believers are there, present with Jesus, and waiting for the resurrection of their physical bodies to the glorified state.
Heaven in the future. In the future, after the resurrection, heaven will still be a place, but it will be far different than it is now. The apostle Peter makes it clear that this present earth will one day be “dissolved”— burned up as by fire (see 2 Pet. 3:10)—and will be no more. John tells us that God will make a new heaven and a new earth—a place for God’s people to dwell forever with him (see Rev. 21). This new heaven and earth will not be separated as they are now; heaven and earth will actually be one. God will dwell in the midst of his people, and believers in Jesus will walk, run, worship, and celebrate in a physical heaven/ earth with glorified resurrection bodies. This new heaven and earth will be like this earth in some ways—but far greater, more beautiful, and perfect.
So in the future, heaven will still be a real place, but it will be heaven and earth all rolled into one. The old earth will be gone forever.
There are many things about the new heaven and earth that the Bible does not tell us. But the Bible does tell us what is most important. The hope of Christians is that they will live forever in the presence of Jesus, worshiping and serving him. There will be no more death, pain, tears, or sin; life will finally be perfect and good with God in his place.
The hope of Christians is that they will live forever in the presence of Jesus, worshiping and serving him.
What Is Hell?
As we turn our attention from heaven to hell, we have to remember that this is a topic that we should never take lightly. We need to treat what the Bible teaches us about hell seriously because it emphasizes the seriousness of sin and the great holiness of the Creator God. Also, any discussion of hell should motivate Christians to share the gospel with people who do not know Jesus yet.
Consider Matthew 25:31–46—a passage in which Jesus describes the final judgment that will come when he returns to earth. Pay attention, especially, to what Jesus says about the eternal punishment of hell in verses 41 and 46. Think about how Jesus’s words teach us about hell; consider how he warns people to respond to him in faith and obedience.
What does the Bible teach us about hell—this place of punishment for all who reject God and his salvation through Jesus?
First, the Bible tells us that hell is a place. The passage that you read from Matthew 25 speaks of the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Jesus points to a place of punishment where Satan will be thrown—as well as people who do not follow Jesus and love others in his name. John speaks of the “lake of fire and sulfur” into which Satan will be finally thrown at the last judgment of Jesus Christ (Rev. 20:10).
Second, the Bible teaches that hell is a place of “eternal punishment” for those who have sinned against the infinitely holy God. That is the exact phrase that Jesus uses in Matthew 25:46, and he uses similar phrases at other places in the Gospels. There is no hint in Scripture of hell being anything other than a final and everlasting judgment for Satan and all who reject the offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. It is not a final destruction or a mere end of existence.
Third, the Bible teaches that hell will be a place where no one will experience the grace and love of God toward his people. Those in hell will know God’s presence in a way, but they will be experiencing the wrath of God against sin without any of his grace and love. So, there is also a very real sense in which hell will be eternal separation from God—from all of his goodness, grace, and love. Even those who do not know Jesus in the world today cannot fully imagine an existence without some experience of God’s grace and presence; life on this earth is full of God’s grace every day. Even the fact that we have breath and life is an example of God’s “common grace,” which he gives to all people. Hell, though, will be the full experience of God’s wrath without his gracious and kind presence. It will be eternal torment.
It should be difficult for us to speak about these weighty truths without tears coming to our eyes and our hearts being moved to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who do not yet know him. As we have seen in earlier chapters, Peter reminds us that God is waiting patiently to bring his final judgment on this world because he wants more people to repent and turn to Jesus (2 Pet. 3:9)! Would you be a part of God’s saving work today? Would you be courageous to share the life-giving eternal message of Jesus Christ with those around you?
This article is adapted from Knowing God’s Truth: An Introduction to Systematic Theology by Jon Nielson.
God will have the final victory over what God has made. It will not be discarded but rescued.
We do not know how much time must elapse before Jesus comes. We err to say otherwise. But we may err in the other direction as well—presuming to think that he must not be near.
The crass references to hell we hear in everyday conversation shouldn’t dull the agonizing awareness all believers should have of the pains of hell.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.