Will Only the Saved Go to Heaven and the Unsaved Go to Hell Forever? Or Will All People End Up in Heaven?

Question from a Reader:

I’ve heard many different teachings about Heaven. Some say Jesus taught that the fate of the ‘saved’ is immortal life on earth, no sickness, no physical death, no natural disasters etc., and those previously dead will physically resurrect to join the living on earth. Some say Jesus did not teach the existence of a heavenly realm as in the Lazarus story in Luke. Some say Jesus did not teach eternal torment of the ‘unsaved’. My study leads me to universalism as Jesus’ most likely concept.

Do you believe that Jesus taught immortal earthly life for the saved, universal salvation, or something else? What passages can you cite as proof of Heaven as the eternal destination for the saved, and Hell as an eternal existence for the ungodly?

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

I believe that Scripture teaches that just as a person’s body dies and is ultimately destroyed then miraculously risen again (Jesus in John 5:28-29), so the earth itself will be destroyed then miraculously risen again (2 Peter 3:13). Hence the New Earth of Isaiah 65 and 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21-22 parallels the new body of 1 Corinthians 15 and other passages. Then resurrected children of God will not float in an immaterial angelic dwelling place but live forever on the New Earth, where God will come down and forever dwell with his people (Revelation 21:3). Hence, my understanding is that the present pre-resurrection Heaven will be transformed into the eternal post-resurrection Heaven centered on the New Earth.

I understand the universalist position that everyone will be saved and live forever with Christ, but that Hell is not an eternal place. I would actually like to believe it, and have read defenses of that position.  Unfortunately I can’t agree with it in light of various passages.

You are no doubt familiar with Matthew 25:46: “And they will go away into eternal (aionios) punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” And 2 Thessalonians 1:9: “They will be punished with everlasting (aionios) destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” I am familiar with the argument of annihilationists that aionios isn’t a strict synonym for eternal, but “of the ages”, and that it can mean a great but fininte length of time.

In my Greek studies we emphasized usage and context to determine a word’s meaning, just as we should in a target translation such as English. The contextual meaning of aionios in various passages strikes me as significant. The immediate context of Matthew 25:46 has Jesus using the word aionios in reference both to Heaven and Hell. If he means Hell is a limited length of time, not forever, then using the identical word of Heaven in the same way in the same content would imply Heaven also is limited in length, not forever. But that’s extremely hard to reconcile with a number of passages. That Jesus would have significantly different meanings for aionos when used twice within words of each other strikes me as extremely unlikely.

Consider also these passages:

  • Romans 2:7 “…to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal (aionios) life”. It appears life that is aionios is the same as immortality.
  • John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal (aionios) life.” Doesn’t this posit aionios life as the opposite of perishing? To never perish would be to live forever. And our understanding of perishing for those in Hell would also be not cessation of existence but an ongoing and never-ending state (eternal death) or it would be senseless for Jesus to use it for both states in Matthew 25:41.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:17-18: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (aionios)”. What is the opposite of aionios here? Temporary. Things that are aionios don’t cease to exist.

Bring these meanings of the word back to Matthew 25 and it appears to me that the same word that clearly means endless or everlasting life would also speak of endless or everlasting punishment. Since it’s so clear that aionios means forever when it’s used of Heaven, why wouldn’t it also mean eternal when it’s used of Hell in the same immediate context? It’s not that I like the idea, I’m just seeing it as the most natural meaning of what Jesus actually said.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries