Almost a month ago, my father-in-law died. He had lived a full life, farmed with his wife and loved it, raised five daughters and loved them. He never seemed to be anxious or concerned about what he had, or the need to accumulate more. The night before his death, my wife said that when he looked at her it was as if he was looking beyond her, like he could see something beyond that she could not see. Was it a glimpse of eternity?…of heaven? Most of our talks as a family have been about work, finances, holidays, almost everything but what is beyond this short life. Yet somehow, looking at dad’s lifeless body, his spirit gone, and reflecting on the shortness of the life, of someone we ate with, laughed with, hugged and respected prompted a conversation that seemed to draw us all closer together than any of those other conversations. How close was heaven? Could dad see us?
Our conversations prompted me to ask the question: And what about hell? It’s amazing how many books have been written about heaven recently, with many talking about their after death experiences of a light, a tunnel, of a beautiful place. Clergy will often speak of heaven, at least at funerals. And yet if heaven is real, doesn’t hell also have to exist? While hell may no longer be in vogue in religious circles these days, it seems heaven has no real purpose, no real meaning unless there is a hell. And then the thought that begs a question: What is the real difference between the two? And just how closely related are they? About a week ago a radio host on CBC Canada mentioned some of the opinions people and religious authors and leaders had of heaven and hell today. Most don’t believe in a hell, but do believe in a heaven where life is pretty much similar to the life we experience now, just a little better, with less of the hassles.
When Jesus spoke about heaven he often spoke of a hell. For Jesus heaven could only be understood in the context of hell. One of the most vivid pictures Jesus gives links our decisions in this life with the afterlife. Jesus described a man who had everything, and gave little or no thought to those who didn’t. His life goal was personal pleasure and comfort, rather than bettering the life of those around him. At the very gate of this rich man sat a beggar begging. However, for the rich man it was as if he wasn’t even there until they both died and faced the reality of the afterlife. Jesus said the beggar ended up in a heavenly Paradise with Abraham, a man who had lived by faith in God and became the father of faith. It appears the beggar in his difficult life had discovered the power of that same faith in God, and how to quench the thirst of his soul, even though he was physically impoverished. The result was that he found himself with Abraham in paradise after dying, in a place where his soul was satisfied with living water. The rich man, who had been constantly striving for position and material possessions found himself in another place. It was a place of inner torment, with no way to quench the soul’s thirst. The amazing thing is that these places were very close to each other, so close that the rich man in his torment could see Lazarus the former beggar at complete peace, and could even talk to Abraham who was with Lazarus. Yet somehow these places were completely separate, and it was impossible to move from one location to the other. They were eternal destinations.
The reality of the closeness of the two destinations is seen in another intriguing passage in the Bible. It is the moment when the Anti-Christ is thrown into hell. The book of Revelation talks about that moment but doesn’t really describe hell in detail. “But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet…The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur” (Revelation 19: 20). In the book of Daniel this same event is described with detail and a surprising twist. “This horn had eyes like the eyes of a man and a mouth that spoke boastfully. As I looked thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.”
We discover the incredible truth in Daniel that the fiery river of God’s holy presence that flows from his throne is both heaven and hell. It is heaven for those who love him and trust in him, standing before him to serve Him. Revelation actually describes this river of God’s presence that flows from his throne as a beautiful crystalline river that gives life and healing for the nations (Revelation 22:1,2) That it is how it is seen and experienced by those who believe and trust God (like Abraham and Lazarus, and thousands before God’s throne), their souls drinking from the river of his love and provision. However, for those who refuse to reach out to God to quench the thirst of their souls and instead turn inward to focus on self, self-pleasure, self-realization, self-exaltation, the separation of the soul from God’s love becomes an everlasting hell (the rich man). Our choice to worship self is a choice of eternal isolation and separation from God’s love and results in an unquenchable thirst of the soul. The sober message is that if we do not choose to satisfy our soul with God’s river of life now, but rather with the superficial (passions, possessions and position), we will have made a fateful choice. The Apostle John explains the reality: “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17). However, just as Jesus said to the Samaritan woman, he says to us: “If you knew the gift of God…you would have asked him for a drink and he would have given you living water…whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,14)
The revelation of the closeness of heaven and hell has its origen in the original paradise of Eden. There in the centre of the garden were two trees. One tree was the Tree of Life, for receiving everlasting life by trusting and seeking God. The other tree was the Tree of Self-Knowlege (knowledge of all things good and evil without God). And God said the “day they would eat of that tree they would die.” The Deceiver Satan, convinced humanity that self-knowledge, self-esteem, self-image was true fulfillment…”You shall be like God.” In reality, God had already made them in in His own image and likeness (Genesis 1:27). They were most like Him when they were in intimate relationship with him. For we were not made to be filled with ourselves but to be filled with his presence, his thoughts, his desires. That is when we are the most alive. Self-image was the plan of the devil to erase God’s image – his likeness and life in us. But God in his mercy sent his only Son Jesus. Jesus’ answer for a lost humanity was to deny himself and be crucified. Only by denying himself would he save us from ourselves. The Apostle Paul declares the great new reality. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The life I now live I live by faith in the One who died for me and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Like Paul, Abraham, and Lazarus, we have the opportunity to put our faith in Christ, not in ourselves, and begin the journey to heaven.
I know I will see my father-in-law there. He had begun the journey of faith in Christ long before his death. I pray that you also will make the decision to do the same. Receive the gift that God offers you. Ask Christ for the drink of living water by trusting and believing in him for your deepest needs. The invitation is open: “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Revelation 22:17). There you will find forgiveness, reconciliation and peace with God. There you will discover new hope and joy that will last an eternity, because you will have discovered the pathway to heaven, the destination for which you were made. For Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life”, the only path to the Father (John 14:6). If you are already on that path be thankful. And, please pray for and share the truth with those around you so that they may join you and be awakened from the deception that fooled us all.