Heaven and Hell in the Bible
Does it really say what we think it says?
Quotations in this article are from The Holy Bible, New International Version, © 1972, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Jesus teaches us to invoke God as “our Father in heaven”(Matthew 6:9). I would like to explore the meaning of that phrase “in heaven.” It was a familiar concept to His hearers because it was also found in the prayer that Solomon said at the dedication of the temple: “Hear from heaven your dwelling place, and when You hear, forgive.” (1 Kings 8:30).
Heaven and Sky
In exploring passages about heaven, it is helpful to know that many languages, including the biblical languages, use the same word for sky and for the dwelling place of God. The same word for heaven that is used in this verse about the natural universe: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place” (Psalm 18:3), is used again in another verse to indicate the place where God is: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Psalm 2:4). Jewish scholars before Christ selected the Greek word for sky, “ouranos” to translate the Hebrew word, which is “Shemaim” (a plural word). The New Testament writers also used that Greek word both with the physical meaning, “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26), and with the supernatural meaning: “both their Master and yours is in heaven,” (Ephesians 6:9). Fortunately, most of the English translations reserve the word heaven for the supernatural meaning, and translate the physical meaning with “sky” or “air,” as in “the birds of the air (ouranos).” When Paul had visions and revelations from the Lord, he said he was taken up to the “third heaven” to see those visions (2 Corinthians 12:1–4). One way to understand this is to call the first heaven the place where clouds are, the second heaven the place where stars are, and the third heaven the presence of God. (Another possibility is that Jewish tradition speaks of 7 heavens, and that Paul went might have meant one of those).
The idea that God is “above” is ancient and found in many cultures, and seen even in the New Testament, for Jesus told his followers that “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17). When Jesus ascended “to heaven” (Luke 24:31), He went up and through the clouds (Acts 1:9).
Enlarging the concept
Other verses enlarge the concept of what it means for God to be “in heaven.” Even Solomon professed that “Heaven, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You” (1 Kings 8:27). Another verse professes that there is no place one can go to flee from God’s presence: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Ps 139:8). To Jeremiah, God says “do I not fill heaven and earth, says the LORD? (Jeremiah 33:24). God is everywhere, and yet also “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). Even Jesus “ascending” into heaven is not meant to indicate that Jesus is absent, for Jesus said “Surely I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).
I find myself drawn to visualize this more expansive view of God’s presence with a word that is not in the Bible, but is familiar to us in our scientific age. I like to conceive of God as being in another dimension, a dimension that is not accessible to our five senses, and that is not tied down to space and time. Therefore when I pray “our Father in heaven,” I do not think of God as far away, but as present.
Communicating with God
Though we do not have a sense organ that can access that dimension, God does have ways of showing Himself in our dimensions. God breathed the scriptures through their writers (2 Timothy 3:16). Visions were given both before and after Christ, and were recorded for posterity. God told Moses that he could not see His face and live, but did permit Moses to see His “glory.”
Many verses that include that word “glory” can be understood as ways that God made His reality known, but in a way that did not cause one to perish. In the New Testament, the glory of God shown around the shepherds when an angel announced the birth of Jesus. This “glory,” indicating God’s presence. did evince fear, but did not kill them (Luke 2:8–10). The statement “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalms 18:10) means to me that the marvels of God are meant to be conveyed through the universe he has created, as Isaac Newton and other early scientists said. For the New Testament, the premier display of God’s nature is the person of Jesus, who said, “I have brought You glory on the earth by completing the work You gave Me to do”( John 17:4). To me that means that the self-sacrifice of Jesus portrays that God is love.
Multiple supernatural beings
God created other beings to exist in that supernatural dimension. Jesus says that the angels of God are in heaven (Matthew 22:30). Peter uses another word for the underworld, tartarus, to describe where certain angels are who disobeyed God (2 Peter 2:4). Paul says “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”(Ephesians 6:12). For the word “heavenly,” Paul joins the Greek prefix epi, which means above, to the word ouranos. Paul adds that Christ is seated “in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:20–21).
Kingdom of Heaven
The Kingdom of Heaven is a different topic. It is Matthew’s culturally sensitive way of describing what Luke calls the Kingdom of God, that is, the rule of the Messiah as fulfillment of the promises given to King David that his dynasty will never end. Many of Jesus’ parables start with “the kingdom of God is like …” and go on to describe the perspective on living with Christ as one’s king that is to be normative for believers already now.
Heaven as a place where people will go after death
Saying that departed believers will “go to heaven” is widespread, even though that exact phrase is not found in the Bible. When Paul wrote about his impending death, he said he would “go to be with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) This is consistent with the Bible teaching that when people die “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Since God is in heaven, and we go to God, then it is understandable that people would say that we “go to heaven,” and I do not intend to criticize that usage. But since the only New Testament verses about the afterlife that actually have the word heaven in them are the teachings about us having treasures laid up in heaven (Matthew 6:20 and similar verses), the way to get more details after life after death is to look at the many references to this topic that do not happen to have the word “heaven” in them. The verses about where we go after we die can be divided into where we are before judgment day, and where we are after judgment day.
Before Judgment Day
In the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians called the Old Testament), the phrase “he went to sleep with the fathers” is used consistently about the leaders of Israel who have passed away (Deuteronomy 31:16 and 36 more places). The use of the word “sleep” is appropriate because sleep is a temporary condition and implies the possibility of an awakening from this sleep, which for the Bible happens at the resurrection of the body. The idea of a resurrection is in harmony with what Job says: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes — I, and not another” (Job 19:25–27). The New Testament also uses the word sleep for those who pass away. For example, when Jesus died on the cross, “the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died (Greek: who were sleeping) were raised to life” (Matthew 27:52). Paul teaches that “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), assuring us by the term “first fruits” that we also will be roused and our spirits and bodies which had been separated at death will be reunited: “So will it be with the resurrection from the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42).
The Hebrew Bible uses the word “sheol” in association with the word death, as in this quote: “what man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave (Hebrew sheol)?” (Psalm 89:48). Sheol is defined as “the abode of the dead in Hebrew thought” (mirriam-webster.com). When Jacob was told that his son Joseph had been killed by wild animals, in his grief he said “in mourning I will go down to the grave (Hebrew sheol) to my son” (Genesis 37:35), so apparently he assumed that his son was in sheol. It is not evident to me how the concept of “sleeping” conforms with the concept of “sheol.” Later in this article I will return to the question of what the Bible teaches about the destination of those who belong to Him.
Being brought down to sheol is an expression used often in the Bible to describe the destination of the enemies of Israel, like Babylon (Isaiah 14:9), Egypt and Assyria (Ezekiel 32:21), and of the wicked in general (Psalm 9:17, Psalm 55:15). Parents are advised to discipline their children to keep them from going to Sheol (Proverbs 23:13–14). In sheol there is no working , or planning, or knowledge or wisdom (Ecclesiastes 9:10). There is no remembering God or thanking God in Sheol (Psalm 6:5). In the New Testament Peter called the place where the spirits of the disobedient are a “prison” (1 Peter 3:19). Sheol is so undesirable that the Psalms often use it figuratively as a way to describe the anguish of facing an earthly predicament, as in this verse: “The sorrows of sheol surrounded me, the snares of death confronted me” (Psalm 18:5 interlinear); the writer then calls out to God, who delivers him.
The Jewish scholars in the centuries before Christ selected the Greek word “hades” to translate the Hebrew word “sheol,” and both sheol and hades were later translated into English as “hell” in the King James version. Hell is a pre-Christian English term defined as “place of torment for the wicked after death” (etymonline.com). Other English Bible versions translate sheol and hades as “realm of the dead” (New International Version), the grave (Contemporary English Version), and “world of the dead” (Good News Translation).
Another word translated by the English word “hell” is Gehenna. It was not originally a Greek word, but is a Greek spelling of a Hebrew place called “ge Hinnom,” which means “the valley of Hinnom.” That valley was just south of Jerusalem. In Old Testament times, the Canaanites used to sacrifice their children to their god Baal in this valley. As time passed, this word began to be used to refer the place of punishment of the ungodly.
The word “gehenna” is used by Jesus in several places. When talking about evil words as tantamount to disobeying the command against murder, He said “anyone who says ‘you fool’ will be in danger of the fires of hell” (Matthew 5:22). He called the Pharisees “You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell” (Matthew 23:33). When teaching about fighting temptation, He said “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ ” (Mark 9:47–48; the last phrase is a quote from Isaiah 66:24). My assumption is that Gehenna and Hades are referring to the same thing, since the descriptions seem to be similar.
Sheol and God’s People
The Greek word “hades” is translated as “hell” in the following description by Jesus of where a certain rich man was, in contrast to a beggar named Lazarus: “In hell where he (the rich man) was in torment he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16:23). The rich man asked for water because he was in agony in fire. Abraham replied that there was a chasm that no one could cross in between them. Note that the rich man is said to be in hell (Hades, Sheol), but Abraham and Lazarus are not. To preserve the definition of sheol as a place for the dead, I admit that it is possible to envision Abraham as being in a different part of sheol. I however would like to pursue the possibility that sheol is not the destination of God’s people.
For one thing, the emphasis in the Psalms is that sheol is not something people are resigned to go to, but something that they hope and expect that God will deliver them from. For example “God will deliver my life from the grave (sheol), He will surely take me to Himself” (Psalm 49:15). Whether by this the writer expected God to take him directly to Himself so that he will not go to sheol at all, or that that his stay in sheol would not be permanent, is not evident to me from the verse. Another reference to sheol is “you will not abandon me to the grave (sheol) nor will you let your holy one (or faithful one) see decay” (Psalm 16:10). Peter quoted this verse as an argument that Jesus had risen from the dead (Acts 2:24–32). The souls of the martyrs who cried out “how long” are not said to be in hell but with God “under the altar” (Revelation 26:9–11). My conclusion is that despite the existence of the concept of sheol in the vocabulary of the Hebrew people, I believe we are on better ground to encourage believers that their loved ones are not there but are with God, like Abraham and Lazarus. This is compatible with the concept of “paradise.”
When the Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, they chose the word “paradise” to describe the place God prepared for Adam and Eve in Eden (Genesis 2:8.) Hebrew here uses “gan,” which is the usual word for garden. The Greek Bible here says “God planted a paradise in Eden.” Greek had borrowed the word “paradise,” meaning “garden,” from Persian, and most English translations of Genesis 2:8 do use the word “garden” for that place in Eden.
The New Testament writers continued using that Greek Old Testament word paradise. When Paul said he was taken to the third heaven (the one beyond our senses), he used the word paradise to name that place (2 Corinthians 12:4). Jesus told the thief on the cross next to him who had just expressed faith in him that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), so it can refer to a place where believers go upon death. The Garden of Eden had a tree of life, and Revelation 22:2 tells us that our abode in eternal life will also include a tree of life. Accordingly God promises “to the one who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the paradise of God” Revelation 2:7). That implies to me that people are restored in the afterlife to that close relationship with God like the one that existed in the Garden of Eden.
The idea of sheol (hades) not as a permanent but as an interim place is found in this verse about judgement day: “The sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14–15).
Jesus spoke about the eternal fire when He said that on Judgment day, He will separate people as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To one group He will say “come you who are blessed of my Father, enter your inheritance,” and to the other “depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” … “These will go into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31–46.)
Both sleep and eternity are included in these words by Paul: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
Eternal Life is the most common description of the ultimate destination, used 25 times in the New Testament. For example, “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His son. He who has the Son has the life.” (1 John 5: 11–12).Peter calls it the “eternal kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:14).Details about that eternal life are given in Revelation 21:1 where it is called “new heavens and a new earth,” in other words, a new universe, for “the first earth had passed away.” (Peter teaches about this in 1 Peter 3:7–13, and it had been prophesied in Isaiah 66:22). The word for “new” here infers a restoration. Jesus calls it “the age to come” in Matthew 12:32. So when I hear people say “I will go to heaven,” I take them to mean that “I will instantly be with Jesus in paradise, and I will get a resurrection body on judgment day and will inhabit the new heavens and the new earth in the age to come.”
Jim Found is retired after 44 years as a teacher. He likes to find accessible ways to explain complicated topics. This article is based on his website article at foundbytes.com/bible-terms