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John Lennon’s 1971 piano ballad “Imagine” has become the anthem of our postmodern, secular age. The continued success of the song—and the worldview that it embodies—is witnessed by the fact that every year since 2005, the anthem has been played in Times Square just before the drop of the ball on New Year’s Eve.

Lennon’s worldview, with its impressive, ongoing, and long march through the institutions of Western civilization, has helped shape people’s ideas about heaven and hell far more than the plain teaching of the Bible. The result is that many Christians have been intimidated away from adhering faithfully to and speaking forthrightly on what the Bible says about life after death. Such failure of nerve dishonors God and is unloving toward our neighbors. Waffling on heaven and hell is a direct assault on the truth that has been revealed in Christ.

And make no mistake, the doctrines of heaven and hell are all about Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus teaches more about hell than any other person in the Bible. He calls it “outer darkness” and a place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12). He describes what unbelievers will hear from His own mouth on the day of judgment: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41).

Hell is a horrific place where all who die without trusting Jesus Christ as Lord will experience never-ending punishment for their rebellion against God. This punishment is divine wrath justly and necessarily poured out on those who die in their sin—that is, without repenting of their crimes against the infinite, perfectly holy God.

One reason that the idea of hell is so repugnant to modern sensitivities stems from ignorance of God and the corresponding devaluation of sin. Scripture reveals God as “holy, holy, holy” and says that He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Isa. 6:3; Hab. 1:13). He is the Creator of all mankind and is perfectly pure, separate from creation, and untainted by anything that is unholy. Because of this, every sin against Him is a capital offense.

What we believe about heaven and hell matters because Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection secure the former and save from the latter.

One will incur a far harsher penalty for murdering the president of the United States than he will for murdering a thief because of the exalted status of the former. In the same way, God’s ultimate supremacy (coupled with His complete righteousness) requires severe punishment for crimes committed against Him. Because He is infinite, the only fitting punishment for sin is eternal punishment in hell. Anything less would be a miscarriage of justice.

That is exactly what Jesus experienced on the cross when He substituted His life for the lives of sinners. He took on Himself the penalty of His people’s sin. He paid what we owe. In His death, He endured the wrath of God against sin. He experienced hell. As the infinite Son of God, He provided through His death a propitiation to be received by faith (Rom. 3:25). That is, the death of Jesus completely satisfied the justice of God by absorbing God’s wrath against sin and diverting that wrath once and for all away from those who receive by faith Jesus Christ as Lord.

Downplay hell and you diminish the significance of what our Lord accomplished on the cross. Seen in the light of Scripture, hell is justly and necessarily a place of eternal payment for sins committed against the eternal God. That same light displays the wonders of the cross where Jesus, as the eternal Son of God, made full atonement for His people by experiencing the hell that they deserve.

Heaven is likewise all about Christ. Though contemporary culture tends to be less repulsed by heaven than hell, culture’s tolerance of heaven is tied to reimagined ideas of what it is and what is required to get there. Many unbelievers who acknowledge the reality of heaven value it because they believe that it is the final resting place of departed loved ones. The desire to be reunited there to those who are missed here is often the only appeal that heaven has for those who have been well discipled by secularism.

Yet the Bible portrays the glory of heaven as the presence of the triune God, whose beauty and greatness are so powerfully manifested that echoes of “holy, holy, holy” are heard nonstop night and day (Rev. 4). The Lamb who was slain—Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior—is worshiped in heaven for His successful work of redeeming “people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” and making them “a kingdom and priests to our God, [who] shall reign on the earth” (5:9–10).

Those who, while on earth, do not know and love the true God in Jesus Christ find little attractive in the real heaven as it is revealed in Scripture. Even so, many who reconstruct heaven according to their own imaginations still want to wind up there and, for the most part, believe that it is their destiny. Too many funerals have reinforced this sense of security by, in effect, proclaiming justification by death: all that is required to enter heaven is to take your last breath.

Jesus, however, teaches that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” But “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt. 7:13–14). Before His death and resurrection, Jesus also said that He was going to prepare a place for His disciples. When questioned about the way to this place, He said: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

What we believe about heaven and hell matters because Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection secure the former and save from the latter. That means that a proper understanding of both is integral to a proper understanding of salvation. When a person is born again and granted faith in Jesus, he is saved from the threat of God’s wrath now on earth and the experience of God’s wrath eternally in hell. He is also saved to a new life with God in Christ now that will be consummated for eternity in heaven.

Because the truth about heaven and hell has been clearly revealed in Scripture, we ought to do our best to understand and contemplate it. But at the end of our efforts, we must confess that the beauty of heaven and the horror of hell are both simply unimaginable.

Scriptural Inspiration and Authority

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From the June 2023 Issue
Jun 2023 Issue