Is Heaven Our Default Destination...or Is Hell?
The safest road to hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. — C. S. Lewis
For every American who believes he’s going to Hell, there are 120 who believe they’re going to Heaven. This optimism stands in stark contrast to Christ’s words in Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
What would keep us out of Heaven is universal: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sin separates us from a relationship with God (Isaiah 59:2). God is so holy that he cannot allow sin into his presence: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). Because we are sinners, we are not entitled to enter God’s presence. We cannot enter Heaven as we are.
So Heaven is not our default destination. No one goes there automatically. Unless our sin problem is resolved, the only place we will go is our true default destination . . . Hell.
I am addressing this issue now because throughout this book I will talk about being with Jesus in Heaven, being reunited with family and friends, and enjoying great adventures in Heaven. The great danger is that readers will assume they are headed for Heaven. Judging by what’s said at most funerals, you’d think nearly everyone’s going to Heaven, wouldn’t you? But Jesus made it clear that most people are not going to Heaven: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
We dare not “wait and see” when it comes to what’s on the other side of death. We shouldn’t just cross our fingers and hope that our names are written in the Book of Life (Revelation 21:27). We can know, we should know, before we die. And because we may die at any time, we need to know now—not next month or next year. “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
It’s of paramount importance to make sure you are going to Heaven, not Hell. The voice that whispers, “There’s no hurry; put this book down; you can always think about it later,” is not God’s voice. He says, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2) and “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15).
Hell: Heaven’s Awful Alternative
Hell will be inhabited by people who haven’t received God’s gift of redemption in Christ (Revelation 20:12-15). After Christ returns, there will be a resurrection of believers for eternal life in Heaven and a resurrection of unbelievers for eternal existence in Hell (John 5:28-29). The unsaved—everyone whose name is not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life—will be judged by God according to the works they have done, which have been recorded in Heaven’s books (Revelation 20:12-15). Because those works include sin, people on their own, without Christ, cannot enter the presence of a holy and just God and will be consigned to a place of everlasting destruction (Matthew 13:40-42). Christ will say to those who are not covered by his blood, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41).
Hell will not be like it’s often portrayed in comic strips, a giant lounge where between drinks people tell stories of their escapades on Earth. Rather, it will be a place of utter misery (Matthew 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28). It will be a place of conscious punishment for sins, with no hope of relief. This is why Dante, in the Inferno, envisioned this sign chiseled above Hell’s gate: “Abandon every hope, you who enter.”
The reality of Hell should break our hearts and take us to our knees and to the doors of those without Christ. Today, however, even among many Bible believers, Hell has become “the H word,” seldom named, rarely talked about. It doesn’t even appear in many evangelistic booklets. It’s common to deny or ignore the clear teaching of Scripture about Hell. Hell seems disproportionate, a divine overreaction. In the words of one professor and contributor to an evangelical publication, “I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine. . . . How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.”
Many imagine that it is civilized, humane, and compassionate to deny the existence of an eternal Hell, but in fact it is arrogant that we, as creatures, would dare to take what we think is the moral high ground in opposition to what God the Creator has clearly revealed. We don’t want to believe that any others deserve eternal punishment, because if they do, so do we. But if we understood God’s nature and ours, we would be shocked not that some people could go to Hell (where else would sinners go?), but that any would be permitted into Heaven. Unholy as we are, we are disqualified from saying that infinite holiness doesn’t demand everlasting punishment. By denying the endlessness of Hell, we minimize Christ’s work on the cross. Why? Because we lower the stakes of redemption. If Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection didn’t deliver us from an eternal Hell, his work on the cross is less heroic, less potent, less consequential, and thus less deserving of our worship and praise. As theologian William G. T. Shedd put it, “The doctrine of Christ’s vicarious atonement logically stands or falls with that of eternal punishment.” Satan has obvious motives for fueling our denial of eternal punishment: He wants unbelievers to reject Christ without fear; he wants Christians to be unmotivated to share Christ; and he wants God to receive less glory for the radical nature of Christ’s redemptive work.
What Did Jesus Say about Hell?
Many books deny Hell. Some embrace universalism, the belief that all people will ultimately be saved. Some consider Hell to be the invention of wild-eyed prophets obsessed with wrath. They argue that Christians should take the higher road of Christ’s love. But this perspective overlooks a conspicuous reality: In the Bible, Jesus says more than anyone else about Hell (Matthew 10:28; 13:40-42; Mark 9:43-44). He refers to it as a literal place and describes it in graphic terms—including raging fires and the worm that doesn’t die. Christ says the unsaved “will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12). In his story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus taught that in Hell, the wicked suffer terribly, are fully conscious, retain their desires and memories and reasoning, long for relief, cannot be comforted, cannot leave their torment, and are bereft of hope (Luke 16:19-31). The Savior could not have painted a more bleak or graphic picture.
How long will Hell last? “They will go away to eternal punishment,” Jesus said of the unrighteous, “but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). Here, in the same sentence, Christ uses the same word translated “eternal” (aionos) to describe the duration of both Heaven and Hell. Thus, if Heaven will be consciously experienced forever, Hell must be consciously experienced forever.
C. S. Lewis said, “I have met no people who fully disbelieved in Hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven.” The biblical teaching on both destinations stands or falls together.
If I had a choice, that is if Scripture were not so clear and conclusive, I would certainly not believe in Hell. Trust me when I say I do not want to believe in it. But if I make what I want—or what others want—the basis for my beliefs, then I am a follower of myself and my culture, not a follower of Christ. “There seems to be a kind of conspiracy,” writes novelist Dorothy Sayers, “to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of hell comes from. The doctrine of hell is not ‘mediaeval priestcraft’ for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin. . . . We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ.” In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes of Hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”
Is It Unloving to Speak of Hell?
If you were giving some friends directions to Denver and you knew that one road led there but a second road ended at a sharp cliff around a blind corner, would you talk only about the safe road? No. You would tell them about both, especially if you knew that the road to destruction was wider and more traveled. In fact, it would be terribly unloving not to warn them about that other road.
For the same reason, we must not believe Satan’s lie that it’s unloving to speak to people about Hell. The most basic truth is that there are only two possible destinations after death: Heaven and Hell. Each is just as real and just as eternal as the other. Unless and until we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ, we’re headed for Hell. The most loving thing we can do for our friends and our family is to warn them about the road that leads to destruction and tell them about the road that leads to life.
It would upset us, but would we think it unloving if a doctor told us we had a potentially fatal cancer? And would the doctor not tell us if the cancer could be eradicated? Why then do we not tell unsaved people about the cancer of sin and evil and how the inevitable penalty of eternal destruction can be avoided by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ?
Teresa of Avila, a sixteenth-century Carmelite nun, had an agonizing vision of Hell. She later wrote of the torment she endured:
I was terrified by all this, and, though it happened nearly six years ago, I still am as I write: even as I sit here, fear seems to be depriving my body of its natural warmth. I never recall any time when I have been suffering trials or pains and when everything that we can suffer on earth has seemed to me of the slightest importance by comparison with this. . . . It has been of the greatest benefit to me, both in taking from me all fear of the tribulations and disappointments of this life and also in strengthening me to suffer them and to give thanks to the Lord, Who, as I now believe, has delivered me from such terrible and never-ending torments.
If we understood Hell even the slightest bit, none of us would ever say, “Go to Hell.” It’s far too easy to go to Hell. It requires no change of course, no navigational adjustments. We were born with our autopilot set toward Hell. It is nothing to take lightly—Hell is the single greatest tragedy in the universe. God loves us enough to tell us the truth—there are two eternal destinations, not one, and we must choose the right path if we are to go to Heaven. All roads do not lead to Heaven. Only one does: Jesus Christ. He said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). All other roads lead to Hell. The high stakes involved in the choice between Heaven and Hell will cause us to appreciate Heaven in deeper ways, never taking it for granted, and always praising God for his grace that delivers us from what we deserve and grants us forever what we don’t.
Earth: The In-Between World
God and Satan are not equal opposites. Likewise, Hell is not Heaven’s equal opposite. Just as God has no equal as a person, Heaven has no equal as a place.
Hell will be agonizingly dull, small, and insignificant, without company, purpose, or accomplishment. It will not have its own stories; it will merely be a footnote on history, a crack in the pavement. As the new universe moves gloriously onward, Hell and its occupants will exist in utter inactivity and insignificance, an eternal non-life of regret and—perhaps—diminishing personhood.
Scripture says of those who die without Jesus, “They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Because God is the source of all good, and Hell is the absence of God, Hell must also be the absence of all good. Likewise, community, fellowship, and friendship are good, rooted in the triune God himself. But in the absence of God, Hell will have no community, no camaraderie, no friendship. I don’t believe Hell is a place where demons take delight in punishing people and where people commiserate over their fate. More likely, each person is in solitary confinement, just as the rich man is portrayed alone in Hell (Luke 16:22-23). Misery loves company, but there will be nothing to love in Hell.
Earth is an in-between world touched by both Heaven and Hell. Earth leads directly into Heaven or directly into Hell, affording a choice between the two. The best of life on Earth is a glimpse of Heaven; the worst of life is a glimpse of Hell. For Christians, this present life is the closest they will come to Hell. For unbelievers, it is the closest they will come to Heaven.
The reality of the choice that lies before us in this life is both wonderful and awful. Given the reality of our two possible destinations, shouldn’t we be willing to pay any price to avoid Hell and go to Heaven? And yet, the price has already been paid. “You were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20). The price paid was exorbitant—the shed blood of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Consider the wonder of it: God determined that he would rather go to Hell on our behalf than live in Heaven without us. He so much wants us not to go to Hell that he paid a horrible price on the cross so that we wouldn’t have to.
As it stands, however, apart from Christ, our eternal future will be spent in Hell. Jesus asks a haunting question in Mark 8:36-37: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” The price has been paid. But still, we must choose. Like any gift, forgiveness can be offered, but it isn’t ours until we choose to receive it. A convicted criminal can be offered a pardon by the governor, but if he or she rejects the pardon, it’s not valid.
A pardon must be accepted. Similarly, Christ offers each of us the gift of forgiveness and eternal life—but just because the offer is made doesn’t make it ours. To have it, we must choose to accept it
For more information on the subject of Heaven, see Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven.