Tough Questions: Concerning Heaven and Hell

Here is a question that one of my students asked about heaven and hell.  It is a pretty common one:

“How is it considered that we have free will to choose God, if when I don’t choose God I go to Hell? It doesn’t seem like I have a choice but rather only can decide to follow God.”

Again, I ask these questions both to give you a snapshot of the kinds of questions that students are asking on campus, but also to hear any feedback that you might have.

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2 thoughts on “Tough Questions: Concerning Heaven and Hell

  1. Taylor N. says:

    Oh man, that’s tough. I’ll definitely have to think more, but my first thought is that free will in any case has consequences. This is a bad example, but for example … if I make a free will choice to jump off building, I’ll still be meeting the ground below. I think of free will as any relationship, true love is self-elected. We have the free will to either love God, or not. I hope you follow this post with your own ideas, Nick.

    • Taylor,
      Thanks for weighing in. Here is how I tackled this one:

      I think that the first thing to clarify in addressing your question is the difference between “freedom of choice” and “freedom from consequence”. What I mean by this is that every choice we make has consequences, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Just because the results of a choice we make end up being negative does not mean that we had no freedom in deciding whether or not to make that choice. So when we talk about free will it is important to remember that what we are talking about is the ability to make a choice.

      To give a modern example, you can choose to break the speed limit while driving. The results are that you might get a ticket or you might get into an accident. Just because the results of that choice might be negative doesn’t mean that you had no freedom to choose. You can choose to drive fast, but the result might end up harming yourself or others. Likewise, you can choose to go the speed limit and drive safely for your sake and for the sake of other people on the road. You have the freedom to make that choice, but there will be consequences for what you choose.

      We live with this reality all the time and it affects our relationships, our jobs, our lifestyle, and so forth. The notion that our choices have consequences is a fundamental fact of human existence. Furthermore, we should not say, “Because I don’t like the consequences of my actions, I don’t have freedom of choice.” How we feel about consequences does not negate the reality of choice.

      My point is this, a person can choose to do whatever he or she wants. However, we should not think that because we choose to do something we will therefore be exempt from the consequences of that choice. Hence the difference between “freedom of choice” and “freedom from consequence”.

      So how does this all relate to the question about heaven and hell? Well, I think it is important to understand what the Bible means by heaven and hell. Then we can understand how our choices play into that. Primarily, at their core, heaven and hell are consequences, not choices in and of themselves.

      Let’s begin with heaven. Many people would say that heaven is a place that they want to be. However, very few, including Christians, really understand what heaven is and why it is so good. Here is one of the most complete descriptions of heaven that the Bible provides:

      “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. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’…And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it and its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the rive of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 21:1-4, 22-27 & Revelation 22:1-5).

      What we see here is a pretty clear depiction of heaven. Now, most people love to think about many of the things that John mentions here: beautiful city, rivers, gardens, justice, peace, light, etc. However, when you actually read the passage carefully we see that the reason all of these things are a part of heaven is because of the presence of God. It is because “the dwelling place of God is with man” (v.3) that heaven is a place of beauty, light, abundance, peace and joy. Heaven is heaven because God dwells there. It is his presence that makes it good. God is the source of every good thing and you can’t have these in their fullness without him.

      So, when a person says, “I want to go to heaven, but I don’t believe in God” or “I want to go to heaven, but I don’t see why I need to believe in Jesus” they are actually missing the point of heaven. Heaven is about being with God for eternity. It is His home. The results of this relationship are beauty, life, light, peace, joy, etc. This is why the Bible insists that we must believe in and have a relationship with God. Because it is that relationship that is the requirement for heaven. Essentially, if we want to get into heaven we need to know heaven’s owner.

      C.S. Lewis paints a pretty beautiful picture of this idea in his book “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”. In it the mystical land of Narnia is trapped in eternal winter because it is ruled by the evil White Witch. However, as the book progresses the main characters hear that spring is coming. The reason spring is coming is because the ruler of Narnia, Aslan, is returning. His presence is what brings about an end to winter and ushers in spring.

      Hell, then, is the exact opposite of this. It is that condition, that place that we arrive at apart from God. Again, we see a description of hell in that same passage from Revelation:

      “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for the murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

      Now, reading that I have to admit that I am pretty uncomfortable with the idea of hell. So let me say that right up front. That being said, I think that here too we have to ask ourselves what is being communicated about the nature of hell and what it means to go there. Hell is depicted as a place totally separate and apart from God’s presence. It is a place for everything that is the opposite of God and his kingdom. So if heaven, because of God’s presence, is a place of life, light, joy, peace, beauty, and love then hell is a place of death, darkness, despair, violence, ugliness, and hatred. Why? Because it is a place cut off from God’s presence. Again, it is God’s presence or the lack thereof that determines the nature of heaven and hell.

      However, you’ll note that I said hell is just as much a state as it is a place. Notice what it says at the end of verse 8: “their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death”. Christians have debated for centuries about the exact nature of hell, but one thing that seems clear from this passage is that it ultimately results in final death. Apart from God, the author of life, hell is ultimately a place where we suffer final death.

      So, hell is not some place where people go to be tortured by a malicious God for all eternity. Rather, hell is the result of a life lived apart from or in opposition to God. The result of being cut off from the giver of life is death. That is ultimately what hell is: death, a dead end.

      Now, I know that many people have a hard time with this idea. They reason, “Well why would anyone actually choose hell? That seems ridiculous!” But the reality is that we see the truth of this displayed all around us. We see people who, as a result of their own choices, end up trapped in addiction, incarcerated because they abused others, bankrupt because they exploited the system, and so forth. We choose our own hells all the time. The Bible is simply naming this reality for what it is and warning us that those choices ultimately lead to their final result: death.

      And this actually brings us back to free will. What I love about Christianity is that it does not leave us guessing. It doesn’t trap us into wondering who is going to “get in” and who is going to “be kicked out”. It tells us clearly that if we want love, joy, peace, beauty, light, and life then we will find those things in their fullness through a relationship with God. Why? Because it is His character and presence that makes those things possible.

      Conversely, the Bible tells us what the results of turning away from God will ultimately be. It does this, not to trick us or make us feel bad, but as a warning. God communicates clearly, up front, what the result of our choices will be so that we won’t have to be stuck with the consequences. But, he doesn’t force us to make a decision. To force us to make a decision would violate our free will. Furthermore, to force us to be in relationship with him for eternity would not be loving. So, he gives us the freedom to choose: life with him or not.

      As with everything in life, there are consequences that come with how we choose. But God, because he loves us and wants us to choose wisely, tells us everything in advance. So the question we have to ask is, what will we do with that info? Again, the reason heaven and hell are tied to “accepting Christ” is because they both say something about our relationship with God. Heaven and hell are ultimately the results of having or not having a relationship with Christ.

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