‘Heaven is a place, a place where nothing ever happens’. So sang the Talking Heads in 1979. But how would we know one way or the other?
As believers we go to the Bible to understand how God has intervened in history and to know His will for today, but God’s written Word also illuminates for us those areas in which we will always be in the dark.
How could we possibly know anything about realities outside of this world, unless they are revealed to us by the One who created this world and exists apart from it?
Thankfully, in the gospels, we have the very words of Jesus talking about these realities: heaven and hell.
Yet we are not always comfortable in reading of he who ‘has power to throw you into hell’ (Lk. 12:5), a place where ‘the worms that eat do not die, and the fire is not quenched’ (Mk. 9:48).
Is this the kind of thing we should be writing about in a church magazine, much more speaking of in our evangelism?
Yet with the authority of Jesus’ words we have confidence in talking about these subjects to a society that is at best cynical and at worst indifferent about such matters.
So how can we best communicate the realities of heaven and hell to our culture? Some things to bear in mind…
First, not communicating about heaven and hell is not an option. Whilst we may not today entitle a talk The Eternity of Hell Torments like the 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards, the realities of an eternity with God or an eternity away from God – for that is what we are dealing with here – are too important to simply ignore or water down in our understanding and explanation of the gospel.
Second, for every generation and culture, accurately describing the exact nature of heaven and hell using human language is impossible, a task akin to describing the indescribable. And so, to convey meaning concerning realities outside this world, we need to revert to picture language, as in Jesus’ day (this type of literature was called apocalyptic), painting a picture of an eternity in God’s presence and an eternity of pain and punishment away from God. The details we hold loosely but the concept is one we need to be clear about.
Third, the fact that it is by-and-large politically incorrect to speak of such things today simply serves to highlight the need for our society to hear about such things. However, this must be done sensitively, out of love and concern for those we are sharing with and as part of the whole gospel story. In our culture, heaven and hell are rarely good places with which to begin a conversation.
Fourth, our job in these matters is simply to point people towards the Bible itself rather than our own ideas on the matter (what could we know of something we’ve never experienced?). Only by looking at the language of both Old and New Testaments and the realities they point to can we dispel modern, man-made fallacies: heaven being a place everyone is destined; the devil and his angels – horned and with red forks – somehow residing in hell presently; the idea that someone might actually prefer to spend eternity in hell rather than heaven.
May God’s Spirit encourage us and teach us what to say (Lk. 12 v 12) as we understand and speak of heaven and hell in our sharing the gospel of the Lord Jesus.