Christian Theology: The End Times

Introduction

In this chapter we will discuss one of the most common questions in Christian doctrine today.  Theologians call the issue "eschatology," meaning "a word about last things."  The area deals with such questions as the Second Coming and the nature of hell and heaven.  We'll take each question in turn, beginning with the most perennial of all: when will Jesus return?

During the 16th century, Martin Luther thought the Pope was the Antichrist, and expected Jesus' return during his lifetime.  Christopher Columbus thought the world would end in 1656, and that his explorations would lead a Christian army in the final crusade to convert the world.  Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, predicted the "rapture" in 1910 and the end of the world in 1914.

Harold Camping wrote the bestseller 1994? in which he predicted the end would come on September 6, 1994.  Edgar Whisenant published Eighty-eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, and sold thousands of copies.  Trinity Broadcasting Network president Paul Crouch predicted an apocalyptic event for June 9, 1994.  Such predictions will continue, because every believer wants to know: when will Jesus come back?  Our question is not new.

What happens when I die?

When Mark Twain buried his beloved daughter Olivia's body he placed over her grave this epitaph: "Warm summer sun, shine kindly here; Warm southern wind, blow softly here; Green sod, lie light, good night, dear heart."  He was sure that she was in the grave, that death is all there is.  Was he right?

What happens when we die?  When death comes to someone we care about?  How are we to be ready?  Let's organize our issues into three questions.

Will you die?

First, will death come for you?  Can you escape it?  Is there any way out?  W.C. Fields on his deathbed was seen thumbing through a Bible.  Someone asked why.  His answer: "Looking for loopholes."  But he didn't find any.  The death rate is still 100%.

In fact, you and I are one day closer to death and eternity than we have ever been before.  God's word warns us: "It is appointed unto all men once to die, and then the judgment" (Heb 9:27).  Death comes for us all.  Neither wisdom nor wealth can prevent it: "All can see that wise men die; the foolish and the senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others" (Ps 49:10).  We all face the same end, unless Jesus returns first: "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" (Ja 4:14).

Why will you die?

Why does death exist?  If God were all-loving, he'd want to destroy death, we assume.  If he were all powerful, he could.  But he doesn't.  Why?

Here's the simple answer: because of sin.  The thief on the cross said, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve" (Lk 23:41).  The Bible agrees: "Sin entered the world through man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned" (Ro 5:12).  This wasn't God's intention.  He created a perfect world for his children.  But when sin entered, death stayed.  Death exists, not because God doesn't love us or isn't powerful, but because of sin.

Sometimes we die because of our own sin, as did the thief at Jesus' side.  Sometimes we die because of the sins of others, as when a drunk driver kills a child.  Sometimes we die because of the sin of humanity, for this is the lot of life.  But we all die.

God doesn't stop death, so that we'll not live forever in our fallen world and bodies.  In Genesis 3 God knew that if Adam and Eve ate from the tree of life after their sin, they would live forever in their fallen, sinful condition.  So in his merciful grace, he barred the way.  Now by death, we are set for eternity with him.

God's word is clear: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Cor. 15.50).  Physical death frees us to live forever in glorified bodies with God in his heaven.  Then one day, death will be destroyed forever: "Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of five" (Rev 20:14).  His word promises: "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Rev 21:4).

What happens when you die?

Now we come to our last question: what happens in the moment when you die?  First, you are with Christ, if Jesus is your Lord.  Jesus told the thief at his side, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:43).  "Paradise" was a Persian word for the walled garden of the king.  Not only would the thief receive eternal life, he would spend it with the King himself.  Jesus taught us that the moment we die, the angels carry us to God's side (Lk 16:22).  When you close our eyes here you open them there.  You will never die (Jn 11:26; Phil 1:23).  You are forever and always with Jesus.

Second, you're home.  Paul said, "We would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8).  Imagine a small boy who falls asleep in the back seat of the car.  When the family gets home, his father picks him up and carries him into the house.  When he wakes up, he's home.  That's exactly what happens for God's children.

Third, death is glory.  It is paradise, as Jesus said.  Paul said "to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21), for "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" (Rev 14:13).  We will gain imperishable, glorified, spiritual bodies (1 Cor 15:42-44), and be like Jesus (1 Cor 15:49).  We will know God and each other as we are known (1 Cor. 13.12).  And we will eat of the tree of life and live forever (Rev 22).

However, remember a fourth fact.  Death is eternal punishment for nonbelievers (see question #27).  So be ready now.  The Lord said to King Hezekiah, "Put your house in order, because you are going to die" (2 K 20:1).  If you are prepared, there is nothing to fear in death, for it is but the next step to life.

Dwight Moody, the great evangelist, said on his deathbed, "If this is death, it is sweet.  There is no valley here.  Dwight!  Irene!  I see the children's faces.  God is calling me.  I must go.  Earth recedes.  Heaven opens before me."

If Jesus is your Lord, when you die you won't.  Instead, you'll see God.  And you'll be safely home.

What happens to babies when they die?  What is the "age of accountability"?

I will never forget that day.  A nine-month-old daughter of one of our church members had fallen victim to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.  I was asked to perform the funeral.  As I looked into that tiny casket, I suddenly saw the face of my own nine-month-old son.  I had to step out of the room and gather myself.  My sons are my greatest treasure.  I cannot imagine the unspeakable pain of burying one.  But death comes to all—some late, some early.  What happens to those who die so young?

What God thinks of children

The great miracle of the Incarnation is not that God would enter the world he made.  As Creator, he had every right to visit his creation.  The great miracle was that he would do so as a baby.  Rather than appear among us in his heavenly status, the Lord Jesus chose to become one of us.  And not first as an adult, but as a fetus, then a newborn, helpless infant.  The hands that held the stars were sheltered in a mother's arms.  Christmas tells us what God thinks of children.

King David said of his deceased newborn son, "I will go to him, but he will not return to me" (2 Sam 12:23).  He believed that his child was already where he would one day be, and trusted him to the God who made him.

Jesus made clear his feelings on the subject in two separate incidents.  The first is his response to his disciples' question, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" (Mt 18:1).  He knew they needed to see the answer more than hear it, so "He called a little child and had him stand among them.  And he said, 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'" (vs. 2-3).  The "greatest" in God's kingdom is the one who is most like a child.

Later some mothers brought their children to Jesus, seeking his blessing (a typical custom with a visiting, famous rabbi).  His disciples "rebuked those who brought them" (Mt19:13), so Jesus rebuked them: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (v. 14).

It is obvious that "Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world."  Our Creator is also "Our Father in heaven" (Mt 6:9).  So, what happens to one of his children when they die as a child?

Accounting for accountability

We understand that a youth or adult is responsible for what they know of the gospel.  If they reject God's invitation to salvation, the consequences are their own.  But what of one who dies before he or she is old enough to understand this invitation?  Additionally, what of those who are not developmentally able to comprehend salvation, whatever their physical age?

John 14:6 makes clear that faith in Jesus is the only way to his Father (see question #19).  By logical extension it would seem that none who have accepted his offer of salvation can be in heaven, even if they died too young to comprehend such truth.  But God loves his created children.  How can he send them to hell for rejecting a Christ they were not old enough to understand?

One popular answer is the "age of accountability."  Expressed in various ways through different traditions, it reduces to the idea that each person reaches a certain "age" when they are old and mature enough to understand salvation.  From that point forward, they are accountable for such knowledge.  Prior to this age they are not, and would be in heaven if they died before reaching this life stage.  Here is a clear and logical answer to our question.

But is it biblical?  I cannot find clear reference to this concept in the Scriptures.  By absurd logical extension, the most loving thing we could do for our children before they reach this "age" would be to take their lives; then there is no risk that they could understand the gospel, reject it, and be lost.  Of course such a belief is unspeakably horrific, and would be rejected by any who hold to the "age of accountability" doctrine.  But it is nonetheless a logical conclusion of this doctrine.

Every Christian parent of a teenager knows that children eventually reach an "age of accountability" where they can understand the gospel.  But I'm not sure this theological concept guarantees their eternal life if they die before reaching such a stage.  I think it is more biblical to trust our children into the hands of their Father and Creator, knowing that he knows and loves them.  He cited them as the finest examples and exhibits of his Kingdom.  He wants us to be more like them.  How could he then reject them when they die before they understand how accept his love?

What about original sin?

I do not intend to minimize the biblical doctrine of inherited sin by asserting that we can trust our children to their Father.  We have all inherited a sin nature from Adam (Ro 5:12-14).  This propensity to sin does not force us into rebellion against God—we must still choose to actualize such potential.  The choice is still ours.  Every human being is apparently born with such a tendency toward sin and disobedience.

But to claim that this inherited original sin places a child outside the possibility of eternal life is to reject Jesus' clear affirmation of the children brought to him.  Every child is saved by God's grace, whether they are two or 20 years old.  None deserves heaven, whether they are old enough to "sin" or not.  Grace is amazing for us all.

If you have lost a child to death, know that your child is not lost at all.  He or she is in the arms of our heavenly Father.  Let his arms shelter you, his child, as well.

What happens to people who have never heard of Jesus?

I spent the summer of 1979 working in East Malaysia as a Baptist student missionary.  For the first time in my life, I met people who had never heard the gospel.  Some had never even heard the syllables, "Jesus Christ."  To them, our Lord's name was as unfamiliar as the ancient Persian kings are to us.  Missiologists estimate that as much as one-third of the world's population has no realistic opportunity to know or understand God's offer of salvation through Christ.  What happens to them when they die?

Judged according to the light they have

Let's review some popular rational approaches to our question.  One common suggestion is that God judges the "ignorant" according to his self-revelation in nature.  In other words, he holds them accountable for the "light" they already have.  This paragraph from Romans 1 is usually quoted in support of this theology: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (vs. 18-20).  The Creator has revealed himself through his creation, so that there are no truly "ignorant" people on earth.

However, those who advocate this view do not typically continue reading in Romans 1.  Paul goes on: "For although they knew God, their neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened" (v. 21).  Note that the people to whom he refers in vs. 18-20 are said to "know" God, the word indicating a personal relationship with him.  These people have "the truth of God" (v. 25), have chosen not to "retain the knowledge of God" (v. 28), and "know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death" (v. 32).  It's hard to see how those referenced in vs. 18-20 are "ignorant" of God's word and will.

Furthermore, if God judges the "ignorant" according to the light they have from creation, why is it necessary that Christians give them any more light?  Yet we are commissioned and commanded to make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:18-20), to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Ac 1:8).  If the "ignorant" have enough knowledge to be condemned, but not enough to be saved apart from our witness, how is their condemnation fair?  Can a just and loving God sentence a person to hell for rejecting a Savior she has never had the chance to know?

Good logic, bad theology

A second "answer" to our question suggests that God knows what the "ignorant" would do if they were given the chance to hear the gospel.  Of course, God's omniscience and foreknowledge give him the ability to know the "future" as we know the "present" (see question #23).  But if people don't need to hear the gospel in order to be saved (assuming they would have responded positively if they did hear it), why must we share it?  This approach neuters the Great Commission and renders missionary sacrifice irrelevant.

A third approach claims that God would never send a person to hell for rejecting a gospel he has not heard, with the implication that the "ignorant" will be in heaven.  If this is true, we'd best not share the gospel with such persons lest they reject it and go to perdition.  The first two "answers" make missions unnecessary; this approach makes evangelism positively dangerous.

Living by all the truth we have

So far we've sought speculative answers to a speculative question.  But the Bible was written in a pragmatic worldview, and is more interested in relevance than rationalism.  If we could ask the Apostle Paul what happens to the "ignorant," here's his likely answer: go tell them.  If you know that someone has not heard the gospel, share it with them.  Don't speculate—evangelize.  We are clearly commissioned by Jesus to share our faith with the entire world, starting wherever "Jerusalem" is located on our personal maps.

But what happens to those who do not hear the gospel, despite our redoubled efforts?  Three biblical facts may help frame a scriptural approach to this difficult subject.  First, the Bible consistently teaches that the Son is the only way to the Father (see question #19).  I know of no biblical text which allows us any hope for a person outside of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.

Second, if the Church would multiply disciples through the method Jesus taught, the entire world could be reached, more quickly than you might imagine.  Jesus wanted disciples to make disciples, Christians to multiply through personal evangelism and ministry.  If you were the only believer on the planet today, but you won me to Christ, there would be two disciples.  If each of us could win someone to Christ tomorrow, there would be four Christians on the planet.  If each of the four could bring someone to Jesus the next day, eight believers would exist.  By this process, 16 Christians would be produced the next day, 32 the next, 64 the next, and so on.  By such multiplication, how long would you guess it would take for the entire world to be won to Christ?

34 days.  As of this writing, the world's population is estimated to be 6,378,974,736.  By multiplication, if each Christian won another person to Christ per day, the total in 34 days would be 8,589,934,592.  But we can't all win one person a day, you say.  Could we win one per year?  In 34 years the entire planet would know Christ.  This kind of multiplying discipleship is how Jesus intended the Church to reach the world.  His plan still works.

One last fact: God is love (1 John 4:8).  He grieves the lost even more than we do.  We can trust the "ignorant" to his grace, all the while doing all we can do to share Christ with them.  We have no biblical support whatever for believing that anyone can be in heaven apart from faith in Jesus.  So we are called to solve the problem of the "ignorant" not with our theology but with our witness.  With whom will you begin today?

When will Jesus return?

After Jesus' resurrection, he appeared to his disciples "over a period of forty days and spoke to them about the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3).  He then promised them the Holy Spirit (v. 5).  They knew that the coming of the Spirit and the coming of the Kingdom were related.  So in response, they asked the question Christians have been asking ever since: "Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (v. 6).

Their question was logical, but wrong.  Calvin said, "There are as many errors in this question as words" (Institutes 1.29).

Jesus says, "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority" (v. 7).  "Times or dates" refers to specific dates as well as years.  "Not for you" refers to Jesus' first and closest disciples--Peter, James, John, the others, and even Mary and his brothers.  If Jesus wouldn't tell them when he would return, will he tell you and me?

If discovering the time of his return was possible by scriptural exegesis, or spiritual commitment, would they not have determined it?  To say that I know what Peter, James, John, and Mary didn’t is egotism, to say the least.

The Father has placed this decision in his authority alone.  Jesus said, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard!  Be alert!  You do not know when that time will come" (Mark 13:32-33).  Paul told us that Jesus' coming would be as surprising and unanticipated as a "thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2).  Peter made the same prediction (2 Peter 3:10).

Listen to Jesus' warning: "Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him . . . .  It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the second or third watch of the night.  But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.  You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him" (Luke 12:35-36, 38-40).

No one but God knows when Jesus will return.  We must be ready every day, for it could be any day.  This is the clear teaching of God's word.

The practical issue

Why, then, does the Second Coming matter?  Jesus makes clear the practical response to our perennial question: "You will be my witnesses" (Ac 1:8).  The Bible is not a speculative book.  We ask rational, philosophical questions.  We want to know about creation and the end-times, two subjects about which we can do nothing.

But God's word was not written in the western, Greek, rational tradition.  It is a Hebrew book, written from the Hebrew present-tense, practical world view.  It seldom tells us all we want to know, but it tells us more than we can do.  And it is clear: "You will be my witnesses."  No one knows when Jesus will return, so everyone must be ready.  You and I must be ready.  Then we must help other people to be ready.

And we have only today to do so.  The early Christians were sure about this.  And so they lived in the daily expectation of Jesus' imminent return.  They wanted to be found doing what they would be doing if they knew Jesus were coming back that day.  They wanted everyone they knew to be right with God, today.  They had a passion for missions and evangelism, for they knew the time was short.

And they were right.  Jesus may come back for us all today.  Or you and I may go to him.  Either way, the time is short (Ro 13:11-13; 2 Pt 3:11-12; Jn 9:4; 1 Jn 2:28; Rev 16:15; 22:12).  If right now you're thinking, "I have plenty of time, this doesn't apply to me," know that you are deceived and wrong.  You've probably heard the old story about the time the devil had a meeting of his demons to decide how best to deceive men and women.  One said, "Let's tell them there's no heaven," but the devil said that wouldn't work, that God has put heaven in every heart and we know it's real.  Another said, "Let's tell them there's no hell," but the devil said that people know wrong must be punished, so that won't work.  Finally a third said, "Let's tell them there's no hurry."  And they did.  And they still do.

How should we view the "end times"?

Someone asked a wise older pastor his view of the "end times."  He smiled and said, "The Lord put me on the preparation committee, not the planning committee."  He spoke for us all.  We cannot control how the Lord chooses to end history.  Our theories about the future are just that.  The word of God is too practical to focus extensively on an issue which possesses no pragmatic value for our lives.  If I could prove a particular theory of the end times to you, would such knowledge change your life today?

Nonetheless, sincere Christians debate these issues passionately.  In this section we'll survey very briefly the various options held by biblical interpreters.  And we'll seek practical applications for our lives today.

Regarding the book of Revelation and other eschatological biblical texts, seven approaches find support among evangelical scholars.  Listed in no particular order, we begin with the "preterist" approach.  This position asserts that Revelation and other eschatological literature was written primarily for the encouragement of their immediate audiences, not to predict or speak to the future.

Scholars in this tradition emphasize the "apocalyptic" nature of eschatological literature.  "Apocalyptic" (from the Greek word for "unveiling") was a popular literary approach from 200 B.C. to A.D. 200.  It used symbolic, visionary and dramatic elements to convey encouragement and hope to persecuted people.  Preterists argue that Revelation matches every description of "apocalyptic" literature except that it names its author ("apocalyptic" writings are typically pseudonymous).  And so they interpret Revelation as we understand Philippians—a first-century book with perennial spiritual application.  They would not see the book or other eschatological literature as predictive in nature, but as intended first for their original, persecuted audiences.

A second approach is known as the "continuous-historical" school.  It sees Revelation and other eschatological texts as forecasting the development of history.  It located specific texts with specific events through history.  While this approach was popular with Luther, Calvin, and other reformers, it is the least popular of the seven today.

A third interpretive method views eschatological texts with regard to spiritual principles.  It sees Revelation and other literature as teaching spiritual facts (good will triumph, God's people must persevere, etc.), but does not relate these passages to specific historical events or issues.

The next four approaches focus in various ways on the "millennium," the thousand-year reign of Christ on earth described in Revelation 20:1-6.  "Postmillennialists" believe that the church will usher in the Kingdom on earth for a thousand years, and that Jesus will return after ("post") this millennium.  At one time this was a very popular position, but following two world wars it is much less attractive today.

"Amillennialists" (from the Greek word "a" for "no") believe there will be no literal millennium.  Many in this approach find seven cycles within the book of Revelation, each descriptive of life on earth from Jesus ascension to his return.  For them, Israel is the Church today awaiting the Second Coming of our Lord.

"Dispensational premillennialism" views Revelation and other eschatological texts primarily as a forecast of the very last days of history.  It separated Israel and the Church, believing that any promises made to Israel in the Old Testament have been or will be fulfilled literally.  Interpreters using this approach divide history into "dispensations," various time periods during which God dealt with humanity in different ways.  Jesus will "rapture" the church out of the world so God can return to his work with Israel during the "Great Tribulation."  This period will culminate in Jesus' return to earth and the millennium (thus "premillennialism"), followed by the final judgment and eternity in heaven or hell.

This is the most popular position with many laypeople and pastors in conservative traditions, especially in the South.  The Scofield Study Bible, Dallas Theological Seminary, and similar schools have done much to advance this approach.

"Historic premillennialism" believes that Jesus will return to earth prior to the millennium, but does not expect a "rapture" or seven-year Great Tribulation.  It typically views Old Testament prophecies as fulfilled in the church, the spiritual Israel.  This is probably the most popular position today in conservative scholarship.

What difference does any of this make to your life today?  Three facts may help.

One: interpretive approaches must not divide fellowship.  We can agree on the essentials of the Christian faith while disagreeing about this speculative theological area.

Two: we should always interpret the Bible according to its intended meaning.  Scripture can never mean what it never meant.  If a suggested interpretation would hold little or no relevance or meaning for the original audience of God's word, it is suspect for us as well.

Three: we must be ready to meet the Lord whenever that day arrives.  He may come for us today, or we may go to him.  Our earthly lives may end in physical death or Jesus' return, but we will all one day stand before his throne (2 Cor 5:10).  And we have only today to be ready.  "Tomorrow" is promised nowhere in God's word.  So live every day as if it were your last, because one day you'll be right.

Why, then, does the Second Coming matter?  Jesus makes clear the practical response to our perennial question: "You will be my witnesses."

The Bible is not a speculative book.  We ask rational, philosophical questions.  We want to know about creation and the end-times, two subjects about which we can do nothing.   But God's word was not written in the western, Greek, rational tradition.  It is a Hebrew book, written from the Hebrew present-tense, practical world view.  It seldom tells us all we want to know, but it tells us more than we can do.

And it is clear: "You will be my witnesses."  No one knows when Jesus will return, so everyone must be ready.  You and I must be ready.  Then we must help other people to be ready.

And we have only today to do so.  The early Christians were sure about this.  And so they lived in the daily expectation of Jesus' imminent return.  They wanted to be found doing what they would be doing if they knew Jesus were coming back that day.  They wanted everyone they knew to be right with God, today.  They had a passion for missions and evangelism, for they knew the time was short.

They were right.  Jesus may come back for us all today.  Or you and I may go to him.  Either way, the time is short.

Consider the word of God:

  • Romans 13:11-13: "The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.  So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us behave decently, as in the daytime."  Are you living in the "daytime"?
  • 2 Peter 3:11-12: "Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming."  Are you looking forward to his return?
  • John 9:4: "As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.  Night is coming, when no man can work."  Are you doing his works while you can?
  • 1 John 2:28: "And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming."  If it were today, would you be "confident and unashamed before him"?
  • Revelation 16:15: "Behold, I come like a thief!  Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed."  Are you awake?  Are you ready?
  • Rev. 22:12: "Behold, I am coming soon!  My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done."

If right now you're thinking, "I have plenty of time, this doesn't apply to me," know that you are deceived and wrong.  I'm sure you've heard the old story about the time the devil had a meeting of his demons to decide how best to deceive men and women.  One said, "Let's tell them there's no heaven," but the devil said that wouldn't work, that God has put heaven in every heart and we know it's real.  Another said, "Let's tell them there's no hell," but the devil said that people know wrong must be punished, so that won't work.  Finally a third said, "Let's tell them there's no hurry."  And they did.  And they still do.

The glorious promise

So we are not to speculate about Jesus' return, but work hard to be ready for it.  Then one day, it will come.  Just as he rose to heaven, so he will come again one day to earth.

Jesus' ascension is no literary invention, but a real fact of history.  Seven times the New Testament speaks of it, and its importance (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:22; Acts 2:32-33; Luke 24:50-53; John 6:62; John 20:17; Ephesians 1:18-23).

His ascension tells us much that matters.  It tells us what happened to Jesus.  He's not "Missing in Action"--we know where he is.  It says that he accomplished what he came to do, or he would not have returned to heaven.  It says that he is truly divine, for he is in heaven where he belongs.  It says that he now rules the world from his place of power in glory.  And it says that the ministry of the Holy Spirit, through his church, is the best way to build his Kingdom on earth.  The ascension is real and relevant.

And his return will be just as real.  Buddha never made this promise, or Mohammad, or Confucius, or Joseph Smith.  But Jesus did.  He told his disciples, "At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:27-28).

He told the high priest, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:62).  He said, "Men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens" (Mark 13:26-27).  Revelation 1:7 shouts, "Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.  So shall it be!  Amen."

So I must ask you, are you ready to see him?  If it were today, would you mourn or rejoice?  If you knew he were coming back today, would you change your life?  How?

Dwight Moody presented the gospel one Sunday, then told his vast congregation to go home and think about it.  The next Sunday he would give an invitation, and he would expect them to come to Jesus.  But that night the Great Chicago Fire began.  18,000 buildings were destroyed; $200 million was lost, a third of the entire city's value.  No one knows how many died, but some estimates range as high as 15,000 casualties, many of whom had been in Moody's service.  He never waited again.

Nor should we.

What is hell like?

You may remember the Y2K scare, when the year changed to 2000 and everyone wondered what would happen to the world's computers, banks, etc.  One such issue had nothing to do with computers.  How many times have you been to a cemetery and seen headstones already in place for the spouse of the deceased, with the birth year followed by 19--?  Assuming the person lives another four months, what was to be done?  Some monument companies tried to create epoxys to fill in the numbers, but without much luck.  Others had no idea what they would do.  One person said, Just fill in 1999 + 1, or 2 or 3, or whatever.  It was a Y2K problem etched in stone.

I don't know when you and I will die, but I do know that we will, unless Jesus comes back first.  When that happens, where do we go?  In the next section we'll think about heaven; now we'll consider the other place.  I pray that this is the closest you'll get to going there.

A hellish parable

Jesus' most hellish parable (Luke 16:19-31) contains two characters: a rich man and a very poor beggar.  At opposite ends of the spectrum, here and in eternity.  Here's how the story goes.

We meet the rich man first.  A very rich man.  And religious as well.  He is "dressed in purple and fine linen."  This means that his outer robe was dyed purple, while his inner robe was made of Egyptian woven linen.  Jesus is literally describing the costliest clothing of his day; a $2,000 suit, we'd say.

He "lives in luxury every day."  The Greek says that he lives "lampros," brilliantly, magnificently.  Clearly he is one of the leading social figures of his time, well known and popular.

And he is obviously an observant Jew, calling out to "Father Abraham" (v. 24) as did the pious Jews of his day.  No lawbreaking is mentioned here.  Obviously he is a typically religious man.  Rich and religious.

Our other character is "a beggar named Lazarus."  His name, ironically, means "God helps."  He is the only named character in all of Jesus' parables.  Society knew the rich man's name, but we don't.  No one knew the beggar's name, but we do.  So does God.

He is "laid" at the gate (v. 20)--the Greek says he's "thrown there."  He's "covered with sores."  Luke uses a medical term here, perhaps for bedsores because of his crippled condition.  As a result, Lazarus is starving.  "Longing to eat" means "longing without satisfaction."  People in Jesus' day didn't have paper or cloth napkins; they would wipe their hands on bread, then throw it out.  He longs to eat these scraps, but is refused.  Instead, the dogs eat them.  Then they lick his sores.  What a horrible life!  But a realistic portrayal of many in Jesus' day.

Now comes the first surprise in our story: Lazarus goes to heaven.  No burial is mentioned.  Likely is body is thrown outside the city on the trash heap known as Gehenna, where refuse was constantly burning.  But not his soul: he is at "Abraham's side," a Jewish idiom for heaven.  He is carried there by the angels, in one of the greatest funeral processions of all time.

Then comes the second, even greater surprise: the rich man goes to hell.  In Jesus' day riches were a sure sign of God's blessing.  But Jesus had just said, "You cannot serve both God and Money" (16.13).  And the Pharisees, who loved money, sneered at him (v. 14).

Now the rich man is buried, undoubtedly with much ceremony and speech-making.  A vivid contrast to Lazarus' body lying on the trash heap.  Then comes the great irony: Lazarus' body is on literal Gehenna, but the rich man's soul is in eternal Gehenna, hell, a place of great "torment" (v. 23).  Forever.

From Jesus' sobering story we discover several crucial facts: our souls do not die with our bodies; our souls are conscious after death; the righteous are taken to a place of happiness immediately at death, while the wicked are consigned at once to punishment; wealth does not keep us from death or hell; there is a place of suffering beyond the grave--a hell; there is never any escape or end to hell; God gives us sufficient warning to prepare for death; and God will give us nothing further to warn us.

Now, from Jesus' story, let's ask some questions.

Facts about hell

First, what is hell?

It is a real place, mentioned 23 times in the New Testament, 15 times by Jesus himself.  Jesus calls it a place of "torment" (v. 23).  Hell is real, despite its unpopularity today.  62% of all Americans, including 52% of "born-again Christians, say that Satan does not exist.  Only 4% of all Americans are worried about going to hell.  But our ignorance and deceit do not change the fact that hell is real.

God's word often describes hell as "fire" (v. 24).  Jesus said, "The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:49-50).  Jude 7 calls hell "the punishment of eternal fire."  Revelation 14:10 says, "He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.  And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever."  And Rev. 20:15 calls hell "the lake of fire."

Third, hell is called "darkness": "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt. 22:13; cf. Jude 6).  Fourth, using language from the literally trash heap Gehenna, Jesus said, "Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:49; cf. Isaiah 66:24).

Most of all, hell is separation from God (Lk. 16:26).  Remember Jesus' warning: "I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers'" (Mt. 7:23).  And hell is permanent (v. 26); it is the "second death" (Rev. 20:14).

Second, is hell a literal place?  Yes.

Now, most interpreters see the descriptions as intentionally symbolic, but descriptions of a literal place and reality.  Calvin, Luther, J. I. Packer, C. S. Lewis, and Billy Graham all see these pictures as symbolic of a literal reality.  We know that those in hell cannot literally see those in heaven.  Hell is described as "darkness" in Jude 6, yet a "fiery furnace" in Jude 7.  Physical fire only works on physical bodies, yet Mt. 25:41 teaches that the eternal fire was first created for spirit beings like the devil and his angels.

But please don't miss the point--hell is terrible.  Jesus used the worst pictures he could find.  The point is, you do not want to go there, or let anyone you know go there!  To be absent from God, and from all that is good, for all eternity.  That is hell.

Third, who goes there?

From our parable we see that those who refuse to repent (v. 30), who refuse God's word and revelation (v. 31) go to hell.  Jesus was clear: he is the way, truth, and life; no one goes to the Father except through him.  Those who refuse Jesus' offer of eternal life, choose hell instead.  The word of God is nonnegotiable: those whose names are not found written in the "Lamb's book of life" are cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20.15). 

Fourth, when do they go to hell?

Our parable makes clear that they are punished immediately.  Then they are condemned to eternal hell at the final judgment: "This is how it will be at the end of the age," Jesus says (Mt. 13.49), then he describes "the fiery furnace."  Paul taught the same (2 Thes. 1:9-10): "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed."  When they stand before God in the final judgment, "If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire" (Rev. 20:15).

This is an actual reality.  Dr. Charles Garfield has done extensive research with those who died physically and were brought back to life medically.  His results: "Almost as many of the dying patients interviewed reported negative visions (demons and so forth), as reported blissful experiences."

Dr. Maurice Rawlings tells about one of his patients, a man who died three times.  At his first death he saw things so horrible that he experienced a religious conversion.  His second clinical death, some days later, produced a wonderful, heavenly experience.  At his third and final death, he was the one reassuring his doctor.

Last question: is hell fair?

The rich man in our story never protests.  He knows he deserves to go there.  Dr. Rawlings found the same with patients who went to hell then were resuscitated: not one of them thought this was unfair.  Every one knew he or she deserved to go to hell.

Instead, the rich and religious man wants to spare his brothers, for they deserve to go there as well.  Those in hell would make the greatest evangelists on earth.

The fact is, heaven is a perfect place.  One sin would ruin it.  So Jesus died to pay for our sins, to cleanse us from them.  But if we refuse his salvation, we must pay for them ourselves.  This means that we are unable to come into the presence of God, forever.

I especially appreciate the way Calvin Miller puts it.  "God, can you be merciful and send me off to hell and lock me in forever?"  "No, Pilgrim, I will not send you there, but if you chose to go there, I could never lock you out."

So, we have learned important facts.  One: hell matters, for it is eternal.  The early theologians had the best illustration of eternity.  Imagine a hummingbird, flying from earth to the moon, picking up a grain of moon dust, and returning to deposit it on the earth, once every thousand years.  How long would it take the hummingbird to move the entire moon to the earth?  When it is finished, eternity has just begun.

Two: you must be saved today.  This is the only chance to trust in Jesus you know you'll have.  I cannot promise you another; neither will God.

And three: you must bring someone else with you.  If I have the cure for cancer and will not give it to people dying of the disease, only two reasons could explain my behavior.  Either I don't believe people will die, or I don't care.  Scripture excludes the first reason, leaving only the second.

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once took a group of volunteers through an extensive training course lasting many weeks.  When it was done he said to them, "I'm sorry our training took so long.  If I could take you to hell for five minutes, none of what I've taught you would be necessary."  He was right.

"Five minutes in hell."  We've been to hell through God's word today.  Now, do whatever you must not to go there, or let someone else go there, tomorrow.

What is heaven like?

When Ronald Reagan was running for Governor of California, a woman confronted him by his car one day and berated him severely.  Finally she said, "I wouldn't vote for you if you were St. Peter."  He smiled and replied, "No problem.  If I were St. Peter, you wouldn't be living in my district."

What do we know about "St. Peter's district"?  We're all fascinated with the subject.  We have looked at hell, the place everyone wants to avoid; now let's discuss the place everyone wants to see.  Each of us has loved ones there; I assume we all would like to spend eternity there ourselves.  So let's ask the word of God to tell us about heaven.  Then let's ask why our topic matters, why heaven is important for us on earth.  I don't believe we can study a more motivating subject than this.

What is heaven?

What does God tell us about our eternal home?  First, he tells us that heaven is real.  It is certain--no figment of religious imagination, no superstition, no "opiate of the people" (to quote Karl Marx).  He revealed it here to John: "I saw a new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation 21:1).  According to God himself, heaven is real.

Second, heaven is a place (Rev. 21:1-2).  John "saw" it.  He didn't feel it, or dream of it, or hear about it.  He saw it, and we only see things which are.  Heaven is a place.

Jesus said, "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you" (John 14.2; emphasis mine).  Where?  "Up there"?  Heaven is a place beyond our locating or understanding.  Just as you couldn't dig down into the earth and find hell, so you can't rocket into the skies and find heaven.  God is bigger, more awesome than that, and so is his heaven.

One of the Russian cosmonauts came back and said, "Some people say that God lives out there.  I looked around, and I didn't see any God out there."  Ruth Graham, Billy's wife, says he looked in the wrong place.  If he'd stepped outside the space ship without his space suit, he would have seen God very quickly.

Third, heaven is where God is (Rev. 21:3).  John reveals, "Now the dwelling of God is with men."  When we get to heaven, we get to God.  Psalm 11:4 is clear: "The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne."  Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven" (Matthew 6:9).  Heaven is a real place, where God is.  It's being with God.

Fourth, heaven is a blessed place (Rev. 21:4).  Because God is there, all that is perfect is there as well.  There will be no death in heaven, thus no mourning or crying or pain.  Our greatest enemy will trouble us no more.  Think of that--no death, ever!  Eternity with God in his blessed home.

It's a place of incredible joy: "You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand" (Ps. 16:11).  It's a place of reward: "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Mt. 6:20).  And this reward is eternal: "An inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade--kept in heaven for you" (1 Peter 1:4).  Thus, heaven is a celebration, a party: "Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God" (Luke 14:15).

We will reign in heaven: "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne" (Rev. 3:21).  In heaven, we're royalty!  We'll have perfect understanding there: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Revelation 21 summarizes the blessedness of heaven: "I am making all things new" (v. 5).  No more Fall, nor sin, or death, or disease, or disaster; no more earthquakes or tests or grades; no more.  Everything new.  No wonder Jesus called heaven "paradise" (Lk. 23:43).  It is that, a place of blessing beyond all description: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what the Lord has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9; cf. Isaiah 64:4).

What will we be like?

First, let's set aside a popular misconception: in heaven, people are not angels.  God created angels before he created us, and we are completely different.  When Jesus said that people in heaven are "like the angels" (Lk. 20:36), he meant that we never die, like them.  Not that we have wings and a halo.  We are not angels.

But we do receive heavenly bodies: "The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53).  So, will we recognize each other?  Will we know each other.  Yes, for these reasons.  Jesus said that in heaven we will take our places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Mt. 8:11); on the Mount of Transfiguration the disciples easily recognized Moses and Elijah (Mt. 17:3-4); we will "know as we are known" (1 Cor. 13:12).  I like what one preacher said: "We won't really know each other until we get to heaven!"

So, what is heaven?  Most of all, it's home.  A home of eternal blessing, reward, and bliss, better than the best earth can offer us.  John Owen, the great Puritan, lay on his deathbed.  His secretary wrote to a friend in his name, "I am still in the land of the living."  Owen saw it and said, "Change that and say, 'I am yet in the land of the dying, but I hope soon to be in the land of the living.'"  So can we all be.

Why does heaven matter?

Time magazine once published an extensive article entitled "Does heaven exist?" (Time, March 24, 1997).  The writer documents three facts: preachers preach on heaven much less than in the past; while a large majority of people believe that it exists, most have no real idea what it is; and almost nobody thinks its existence changes the way we live here.  Theologian David Wells is quoted as saying, "I don't think heaven is even a blip on the Christian screen, from one end of the denominational spectrum to the other."

How often did you think about heaven this week?  Did its existence change anything you did?  Why should it?  For this simple reason: when we lose heaven we lose the transcendent.  We lose our sense that there is something more than this world, and we who live in it.  And that is always a bad decision, for several reasons.

First, if we don't live for heaven we will live for this world, for it is all there is.  And that, the Bible says we must not do.  Listen to 1 John 2:15-17: "Do not love the world or anything in the world.  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."

Paul says, "We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (2 Corinthians 5:18).  He warns us: "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:1-3).  The apostle summarizes for us: "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Philippians 3:20).

Why are we not to love this world?  Because it is not enough.  It is never enough.  When an assistant asked a tycoon how much money is enough, he said: "Just a little more."  Our new house seems wonderful, then they build others by us which are larger and better.  Our new car is great, until the next model year arrives.  Straight A's are super, but there's always the next semester.  CEO is outstanding, but the more we succeed the more we must succeed to stay there.

If you don't live for heaven, you must live for earth.  You trade eternity for something which could be gone today.  And that's a mistake.

Second, if we don't live for heaven we must rely on ourselves, for God will not help us love this world.  We are on our own.

Sociologist James Davison Hunter surveyed the titles released by the six largest evangelical publishers in America.  He discovered that 87.5% of all books concerned self-help issues--pop psychology, how to's, self therapy.  Only 12.5% dealt with God, theology, Scripture, or eternity.  When we don't live for heaven, God cannot help us live on earth.

Third, if we don't live for heaven we lose any sense of direction, purpose or values.  If this world is all there is, who is to say what's right and what's wrong?  Everything becomes relative.  And so it has.

93% of all Americans say they are their only moral determiner.  We must tolerate all beliefs as if they were our own.  No absolutes exist--we're absolutely sure of it.  In 1907 P. T. Forsyth made a prophetic statement: "If within us we find nothing over us we succumb to what is around us."

Remember the time in Alice in Wonderland where Alice meets the Cheshire-Cat and anxiously asks, "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"  "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," says the Cat.  "I don't much care where," says Alice.  "Then it doesn't matter which way you go," says the Cat.  And the serpent with him.

Last, when we don't live for heaven we have no real hope when hard times come.  When there is no heaven, we have an intense need for everything to be right on earth.  We can have no suffering, no pain, no distress here--we have an "inalienable right to happiness," we're told.  But not by the Bible.  Jesus said, "In this world you will have tribulation" (John 16:33).  So long as this life is only a trip to a destination, that's o.k.  But when it's the destination, then all is lost.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago describes the terrors of a Soviet concentration camp.  He begins with the day of the arrest and the inquisition which comes before the sentence.  He describes the tortures experienced by the unlucky ones.  Endless, brutal tortures that break down all kinds of men and women--except for the few who cannot be broken.  Those few are ready to die.  The torturers have no power over them.  As much as they enjoy living, they believe there is something more important than life.  They're right.

So, are you living for heaven?  How do you?

We live for heaven when we care more for people's eternal souls than for their temporal approval; when we use our money to build God's kingdom more than our own; when we ask God to use our suffering more than to solve it; when we remember that this life is the car, not the house, the road, not the destination; when we make sure every day that we're ready to die.  Are you living for heaven?

If you are, one day you'll be so glad you did.  The poet said it well:

    Think of stepping on shore

        and finding it heaven,

    Of taking hold of a hand

        and finding it God's

    Of breathing new air

        and finding it celestial,

    Of feeling invigorated

        and finding it immortality;

    Of passing through a tempest

        to a new and unknown ground,

    Of waking up well and happy

        and finding it home.

Think of it.  Would you?

Where is heaven located?

Recently a dear friend presented me with a question I've never before been asked: where is heaven located?  We grow up thinking of heaven as "up there" and hell as "down there."  Are they really?  Where are they?  And why does the issue matter to our lives today?

We learned in the last section that heaven is a definite place (Revelation 21:1-2).  John "saw" it.  He didn't feel it, or dream of it, or hear about it.  He saw it, and we only see things which are.  Heaven is a place.  Jesus said, "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you" (John 14.2; emphasis mine).

And we learned that heaven is where God is (Rev. 21:3).  John reveals, "Now the dwelling of God is with men."  When we get to heaven, we get to God.  Psalm 11:4 is clear: "The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne."  Jesus taught us to pray, "Our Father, who art in heaven" (Matthew 6:9).  Heaven is a real place, where God is.  It's being with God.

But where is this place?

"Heaven" and the "heavens"

First we must identify pertinent terms.  The "heavens" are elements of God's creation which exist outside our planet: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).  The word sometimes refers to the realm we think of as "space": "I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place" (Psalm 8:3).

The "heavens" sometimes refers to the skies surrounding the earth: "As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water.  At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him" (Matthew 3:16).  Likewise, Peter "saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners" (Acts 10:11).

These "heavens" will one day be destroyed: "the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (2 Peter 3:7).  At the end of Revelation, John saw "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea" (Revelation 21:1).

By contrast, "heaven" is the dwelling place of the Lord.  The Father raised Jesus from the dead and "seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 1:20).  Moses taught the people to pray that God would "look down from heaven, your dwelling place, and bless your people Israel" (Deuteronomy 26:15).  The Scriptures repeatedly call heaven the "dwelling place" of God.

"The heavens" are most definitely above us.  To enter them we must go "up" from the earth.  Since we experience our planet as flat, despite Columbus and our globes, we assume that we go from "down" to "up" when an airplane flies into the skies or a spacecraft is launched.  In actual fact we are moving away from Earth at an angle; we would be flying truly "up" only if we were launched from the North Pole.

"Heaven" and "up"

Now we come to the spatial locations assigned heaven and hell.  God's dwelling place is frequently identified in the Bible as being "above" us.  For instance, "The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God" (Psalm 14:2); "From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind" (Ps 33:13; cf. Ps 102:19; Proverbs 30:4; Isaiah 63:15; Lamentations 3:50).  David could likewise say, "If I go up to the heavens, you are there" (Ps 139:8).  And Elijah "went up to heaven in a whirlwind" (2 Kings 2:11).

At Jesus' ascension, "While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven" (Luke 24:51).  This ascension was definitely "up" into the skies: "After he said this, he was taken up before [the disciples'] very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going" (Acts 1:9-10).  At his return Jesus will likewise come down from the skies: "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (v. 11; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:16).

"Hell" is often described in Scripture as being "down."  When the rich man was sent to hell, "where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side" (Luke 16:23).  "Looked up" could mean that he turned his head, but the Greek (literally "lifted up") seems to convey more the sense of looking from down to up.

Likewise, Jesus warned unbelievers in Capernaum that "you will go down to the depths" (Matt. 11:23).  And Revelation 11 describes a "beast that comes up from the Abyss" to attack and kill the two witnesses of God (v. 7).  Homer's mythology also describes an "underworld" beneath our feet as the abode of the dead "shades."

Are we, then, to understand that if we drill far enough down into the earth we will discover Hell?  Or that if we were to fly far enough out in to space we would discover Heaven?  In a similar vein, what are we to make of Revelation 7:1's description of the "four corners of the earth"?  Or biblical descriptions of "sunrise" (cf. Ex. 22:3) such as Joshua's miracle: "The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day" (Joshua 10:13)?  Since we now know that the earth is round rather than a flat square, and that our planet travels around the sun, is the Bible outdated?

What the Bible means by what it says

Three facts help us respond to the question.  First, all effective literature is conditioned by its time and culture.  When I preached in Cuba and said, "It's raining cats and dogs," my translator stared at me in bewilderment.  But you know what I mean.  At the Rangers' ballpark, for the home team to "steal a base" is a good thing.  At Guantanamo Bay, for terrorists to do the same thing would be horrific.

In the ancient world there was no concept of a heliocentric universe.  If the description in Joshua 10 had read, "The earth stopped its rotation around the sun for about a full day," no one for 25 centuries would have had a clue what the writer meant.  Even in our enlightened culture, tonight's evening news meteorologist will predict the time of tomorrow's "sunrise," not tomorrow's "earth rotation until the sun appears on the horizon."

The Bible is not irrelevant for using ancient descriptions to speak to ancient people.  Such strategy shows the abiding intent of Scripture to speak to us where we are.  When we restate the intended meaning of the text in our terms, its transforming truth is clear.

A second fact: there was no practical way for Jesus to leave our planet physically without going "up" into the skies.  There is no way for a God who dwells outside our physical realm to look upon us without looking "down."  There is no way for Jesus to return to our planet physically unless he comes down from its skies.

And so the ancient descriptions of heaven as "up" and hell as "down" are more practical and understandable than 21st-century scientific minds might at first think.  But a third fact comes closest to answering my friend's question: God is Spirit and thus cannot be located physically.  Jesus was clear: "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24).  Because he is spiritual rather than physical, he can be omnipresent (cf. Psalm 139:7-10), omnipotent and omniscient.  If he were bound to a specific spatial location, he could not be present, powerful, and knowing of all reality.

His realm is beyond our spatial and geographical comprehension: "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9).  God reminds us, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:9).  We cannot begin to understand the glories of God's heavenly paradise.  But we can know that it is not located in space as we know it.

What of the spatial/geographical descriptions of heaven we find in Scripture?  We read that the "new Jerusalem" measures 12,000 stadia wide, high, and long (about 1,400 miles cubed), and that its walls are made of jasper and the city of pure gold (Rev. 21:16, 18).  Its streets are also of pure gold "like transparent glass" and its gates of pearl (v. 21).  And we know that one day we will receive new, glorified bodies (1 Cor 15:42-44).  Are these not descriptions of physical realities?

I believe that we will recognize and know each other in heaven (or in hell), as Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus seems to indicate (Luke 16).  But our heavenly, eternal experience will so far transcend the physical dimensions we now occupy as to be incomparable.  Revelation's descriptions of heaven are taken by many interpreters (myself included) to be symbolic in nature, communicating the fact that paradise will be reward beyond our estimation.  We can endure the persecutions of the Roman Empire or our next door neighbor if we know that our eternal paradise is so perfect.

And so a God who is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient Spirit cannot be contained in any physical locale.  Since heaven is his home, it is likewise non-physical.  And we who dwell there with the angels are similarly spiritual in nature.  To ask where heaven is located is to make what philosophers call a "category mistake," like asking how much the number "seven" weighs or what color "friendship" is.  Heaven transcends any location, as does its Lord.

What practical consequence does our discussion hold for us today?  Consider these facts.  One: because God is not located in some realm beyond our telescopes' reach, he is as near as your next thought or prayer.  He is more present to you than the next person you'll see.  He is available any time you are willing to turn to him by faith.  That's good news.

Two: because God is not isolated from us by distance and geography, he is as aware of your thoughts and attitudes as you are.  As you read these words, he reads your mind and heart.  He sees what you see, and knows what you know.  That fact may not be good news for you today, but it is an enticement to godly thinking and living.

Three: because God is present in our world and lives, he can come for us or bring us to himself any moment he chooses.  He has no distance to travel or universe to cross.  Your next breath could be with him.  That's urgent news.  Are you ready?

Let's close with one of my favorite stories about the nearness and presence of God.  The year was 1945.  Spencer January, a lifelong resident of Dallas, Texas, was a soldier in the U. S. Army’s 35th Infantry Division, 137th Infantry, Company I.  His division was pushing through the Rhineland region of West Germany toward the Elbe River to meet the Russian troops.

On March 9 the American troops were ordered to move into Ossenburg, Germany, where a factory that had once manufactured soap was now producing gun powder and other war products.  As Spencer and the rest of Company I were cautiously making their way through a wooded area, word came that the company ahead of them had been hit hard and they were to replace it.

When his company arrived at the scene, Spencer was appalled at what met his eyes.  Only a handful of badly wounded soldiers, hiding behind a stone house at the edge of the woods, had survived.  Straight ahead a 200-yard stretch of open field, bordered on the far side by thick woods, was covered with the bodies of dead American soldiers.

Three nests of German machine guns had mounted the fierce assault.  To try to cross that flat, open field meant suicide, yet there was no other road into the town.  As the order was given to advance, Spencer prayed desperately, “God, you’ve got to do something.”  Thinking of his wife and tiny son back home, he pleaded, “Please, do something.”

Their advance began.  Just as the soldier at the front took his first step, something to the left caught their eye.  A fluffy white cloud appeared out of nowhere and settled on the ground, completely obscuring the Germans’ line of fire.

Taking advantage of this miraculous turn of events, Spencer and his fellow soldiers bolted into the clearing and ran for their lives.  Safe in the sheltering woods on the other side, his heart pounding in his ears, Spencer hid behind a tree and watched as the last American soldier raced to safety.  He will never forget what happened next: the instant the last soldier scrambled to safety, the cloud vanished!  The Germans, thinking they still had the American soldiers pinned down behind that stone house, radioed its position to their artillery.  Within minutes the house was blown to bits.

But that’s not the end of the story.  Two weeks later a letter arrived from Spencer’s mother back in the States.  "Son, what in the world was the matter on such and such a day," she asked, pinpointing the very day and time that Spencer and Company I had faced such grave danger.

"You remember Sister Tankersley from our church?  Well, she called me that morning and told me that the Lord had awakened her at 1:00 in the morning and said, 'Spencer is in serious trouble.  Get up now and pray for him.'  Sister Tankersley said she prayed for you until 6:00, when she had to go to work.  She told me that the last thing she prayed before getting off her knees was, 'God, whatever danger Spencer is in, just cover him with your cloud.'"

All of God there is, is in this moment.  And with you.  This is your heavenly Father's promise today.