The End: Death, Heaven, and Hell

Good morning and welcome to Journey.  My name is Phil Human and I’m the lead pastor here and it’s my privilege to speak with you this morning about a topic that is seems to be a subject of intense interest if not incredible speculation.  And that is – what’s going to happen at the end of the world.   We’re calling this series simply, “The End” – or is it the beginning?

Did you know that one time Jesus’ disciples asked him, “What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?”  And Jesus answered them?  Next week we will begin taking a four-week look at Matthew 24,25, as well as a flyover of the book of Revelation.  And we will try our best to get a handle on what the future looks like.

Many people would love to have a crystal ball, and be able to look into the future.  People have made a lot of money.  Back in the day there was Miss Cleo – a self proclaimed psychic who offered to tell you your future by reading tarot cards – and you could call this number – except it wasn’t free – it was for $4.99 a minute.  And you might be thinking who could fall for this?  Well, according to a later FBI investigation, she was making 25 million dollars a month for at least two straight years.  You will never go broke if you can claim you know what will happen in the future.  There’s money to be made in reading someone’s future.  I’ll do it for free.

In fact, I’ll start right now.  I see in your future.  Yes…  it’s becoming clearer – I see – and I will make this prediction with one hundred percent accuracy or you money back – I see someone in this room will die.  And they are sitting – everywhere in this room.  And some are standing.

All of us, will, in fact, unless Jesus comes back in our lifetime. Death is batting a thousand percent.  Death is part of life.  So this morning I want us to look at what the Bible teaches us about what will happen to us when we die.  And it might surprise some of you to know that the Bible does NOT give a large number of details concerning what happens at the moment of death.  It says some things, but leaves others things in the realm of mystery.

So let’s begin.  The fact is, that according to the Bible – your body will die, but the real you will continue to live.  When we die our bodies become lifeless and are no longer the place where we “reside,” but we continue to exist.

Death is a separation of the spirit and the body – but your spirit -the real you – will live on.

Jesus himself, in Matthew 10 (and Luke 12), makes this distinction – 28 “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul.  

So here is Jesus explaining that the body might die, but the soul – or spirit – it lives on.

Of course, the verse goes on to say, both here and in Luke 12, Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 

So let’s talk about hell for a little bit here and try to figure this thing out.  And no one loves talking about hell, but it’s important that we understand what Jesus teaches us about Hell, because in fact, he speaks more about hell than any of the other biblical writers, in fact, all the other writers combined.

And I’ll just ask that before you think I’m trying to scare you into faith – please just listen to me for a bit and then make up your mind afterward.  It is not my intention to manipulate someone into faith.  Fear is a lousy motivator.

But this is what is clear – according to the bible – when you die, there are only two options for us.  Heaven or hell. Heaven for those who have, through faith in Jesus – entered into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Hell for those who haven’t.  And I’ll talk more about what the bible says about hell in a moment.

But what this means is that there is no biblical support for reincarnation.  You will not come back as a butterfly or a tree or anything else.  You find that idea primarily in Hinduism and Buddhism – but it’s not biblical.

There is no biblical support for purgatory, which was, if I may be cynical for a moment, a fantastic fundraiser in the middle ages – as people were taught that they could give money to the church to free their deceased loved ones into heaven.  And – to be fair, the Catholic church never approved of this practice- they would acknowledge that it was ripe with abuse and one of the causes of the reformation.

There is no biblical support for universalism – the teaching that all of us get to heaven in the end, God’s love prevails and we are all ultimately saved.  I don’t find any biblical evidence for that.

According to the Bible, there is heaven for those who place their faith in Jesus, and there is hell for those who don’t.

As uncomfortable as it is, let me talk frankly for just a bit about hell.  And I’d like to start by talking to those people in the room here who might feel like the doctrine of hell is intended to scare people into becoming a reluctant Christian.

My wife and I moved to Omaha from Massachusetts – Neither of us had ever lived in a town with tornado sirens.  I remember very vividly one afternoon while we were living in Omaha the tornado siren went off – and I did the same thing you all do – I went outside and looked up to see if I could see a tornado.  We are fast learners and we learned that’s what you do.

I didn’t see the tornado but I did see some very ominous looking clouds – dark and foreboding.  So I went to the television and I turned on channel six and at the time Jim Flowers was on the television and he was really worked up.  He thought for certain a tornado was about to drop and then I heard him say – “If you live in the vicinity of Immanuel Hospital – take cover immediately, and then on the television screen he circled my neighborhood.

So what did I do next?  I did NOT pick up the phone and call Jim Flowers and say – “Nice try Jim!  But your little scare tactics to try to get me into the basement will NOT work on me!  Fear is a lousy motivator Jim!”

That would have been irresponsible of me.  Just as it would have been irresponsible for Jim Flowers to say, all the indicators I am looking at on my computer are telling me that a tornado is likely, but I don’t want to alarm anyone, I wouldn’t want to wake up Phil and Jody’s kids. So I will say nothing.”   We can agree, I’m sure, that if you know that danger is imminent, then the loving thing to do is to sound an alarm.

Jesus, because he is loving, sounds an alarm to tell us, that due to the perfect justice of God, judgment will be rendered upon sinful mankind.  But Jesus also tells us that due to the love of God, the penalty for our sins has been taken care of – personally by God in the flesh – through the work of Jesus on the cross.

So not only does Jesus say – that danger is imminent, he goes on to say – here is the way to safety.  In fact, he says, that He is the way.  He is the gate.  He is the path.  And all who follow him can rest, assured that when the Lord is our shepherd, we lack nothing and fear nothing, certainly not death.  As Psalm91:1 says, Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

Jesus sounds the alarm about the reality of hell.  And he does so using language that is stark.  Specifically, he likens hell to the garbage dump on the edge of Jerusalem, a place called Gehenna – and it was where they burned the trash.  And while Jesus would never say that you are trash – in fact he died to show you just how valuable you are to him, he would not be the first to say that it is possible to waste your life.

We say that, don’t we?  Without a lick of condemnation or anger – we know people that we can say, what a shame – they are wasting their life. Jesus lets us know it is possible for people to waste their life for ever.

Now let me continue my frankness about hell.  What will it be like?  Jesus says, you don’t want to go there.  It will be a sad, dark and lonely place.

In the teaching of Jesus the ultimate condemnation from the mouth of God is to hear God say, ‘depart from me.’  Jesus – our creator – the one in whom we live and move and have our very being – is telling us that the worst thing imaginable is to be truly apart from God’s presence.

Why? Because we were never intended to walk without God by our side.   And yet, and you can read about this in the book of Romans chapter 1, some people, although they know better, choose to rebel against him, and the result is that God gives them over to their own selfish desires.

What does it mean that God gives u over to our own desires?  It means that God will not stand in our way.  Ultimately, God gives us the dignity of choice.  And we can choose to live with Him or choose to go it alone.

What is hell then?  It is God actively giving us up to what we have freely chosen-to go our own way, to be “the captain of our own destiny” – If you have spent your lifetime trying to get away from God’s presence, well, God treats you with enough dignity to give you what you want.

J.I.Packer writes: “Scripture sees hell as self-chosen . . . Hell appears as God’s gesture of respect for human choice. All receive what they actually chose, either to be with God forever, worshipping him, or without God forever, worshipping themselves.”  (J.I.Packer, Concise Theology p.262-263.)

Author Timothy Keller writes,  In some ways, the fairest understanding of the afterlife is the Christian one, which says God gives you what you want. If you want to live with God forever, that’s heaven, and you get it. If you want to be your own person, your own savior, your own lord, that’s hell, and you get that – and you stay wanting it; you do not suddenly change your mind.

Now I know that when we bring up the topic of hell, there are many questions that I have to be honest and say, I don’t know the answer.  And I think it’s important that we hold onto issues of the future, and even heaven and hell, loosely.  We must be careful not to think we know too much.

And of all the doctrines I’ve learned, quite honestly the doctrine of hell leaves me feeling the most uneasy.  The reason I wanted to help start a church for cynics and skeptics is because I am often one of them.  One of you.

And usually I say to people who struggle with doctrinal issues that I understand but let me tell you why you are wrong.  But when it comes to this doctrine in particular, I’ve struggled to make sense of it my whole life.  Because the doctrine of hell doesn’t seem to jibe with the Jesus I read about – even though the words about Hell are from Jesus’ lips.  I still struggle to make sense of it.

Ultimately, I’ve simply decided that Jesus knows what he’s talking about.  And it would be irresponsible for Jesus to not tell us what he knows.

And even more so – I’ve decided to leave the judgment up to the most compassionate, most loving, most wise and brilliant man who ever lived, who went to some lengths to explain to us that He came to give us an eternal kind of life starting right now.

I’ve decided to trust eternity in the hands of the one who stretched out his arms on a cross in order to ensure us that we need to worry about this life or the next if we simply trust him.

And so – some people are uneasy with the doctrine of hell because it feels like Damocles sword hanging over our head held by a thread, ready to fall on us at any time.  But then I remember that Jesus let the sword fall on Him, in order that it might never fall on us.

Jesus is abundantly clear that hell is real, and you don’t want to go there.  And He is also abundantly clear through faith we will never be apart from God in this life or the next.

What awaits us on the other side of death?  Biblically, One of two options.  Hell or heaven.  So let’s talk a bit about heaven.

While I was researching this topic this week I cam across an interesting book – it’s called Proof of Heaven – written by a medical doctor who was in a coma and whose brain was pretty much shut down – and when we came out of the coma he had tales of adventure – saying he had been to heaven.  He wrote a book about it called Proof of Heaven that was on the NYTimes Best Sellers list for an astounding 93 weeks in a row.

He is not the only one who has had such tales after near death experiences, and of course it would be at best anecdotal evidence.  Not everyone who was in a coma experienced what he did.  But when he came out of this coma he had vivid descriptions and has dedicated his life to getting the word out – that there really is a heaven.

I add this only because there might be the skeptic in the room who says, “Where’s the proof!” and I’d say – you’ll never find scientific proof – but if you want to find stories about people going to heaven – look on the NY times best sellers list, there’s usually one on there.  I found at least a dozen books like this one – written by people who had died and came back to life.

Obviously, people want to know what’s on the other side of death.

So let me tell you what the Bible says awaits those who have entered the Kingdom of Heaven through faith in Jesus.   Let’s read

2 Corinthians 5:8  Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.

  1. When you die you will immediately be in the presence of Jesus.

When we die, we will be in the presence of the Lord.  Wait – there’s no pearly gates?  Don’t we stand outside the pearly gates and wait in a long line?   No – that’s not from the bible – that’s called a set up for a joke.  Like this one.

Peter was standing at the pearly gates when he looked up to see – of all things – a couple of politicians.  Two county commissioners.  Peter scratched his head – he had never seen a politician at the pearly gates before, let alone two!   He’s not sure what to do so he goes and asks the Lord – we have two politicians at the gates trying to get in – what should we do?  The Lord said – well – look at the book – if their names are written- let them in.  So Peter walks off.  A few minutes later Peter came running back in – and says to God – They’re gone!  And Jesus says, the politicians?  And Peter says, No, the pearly gates!

See – funny jokes.  But not scriptural.  Revelation does describe gates of pearl – but it’s grasping to try to explain the incomprehensible beauty of heaven.  And no where are there lines of people waiting to plead their case.

No – when you close your eyes here for the last time, you will immediately open them in your real home.  Your true home.

And this leads us to the second truth about heaven.

  1. It is far better than here.

Listen to Paul in the book of Philippians –

21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. 22 But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. 23 I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. 

Far better to be with Christ than here.  Being with Christ will feel more like home than any place you’ve ever called home.   To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.

Now much of the imagery we have of heaven – streets of gold, and gates of pearl – those actually belong to the new heaven and new earth – those things don’t come until life after, the life after death.

What do I mean?  Well, you might be surprised to learn that …

  1. Heaven is temporary. Did you know that you are not going to live in Heaven forever?  When Jesus comes back he will create a new heaven and new earth and we will be reunited with a body again!  There is Life after, life after death.  So after death, our spirit is disembodied – but it will not stay like that forever.  It waits to be clothed again in a body – at the resurrection.

We are not created to be disembodied spirits.  We are created to be clothed in a body.  And someday we will have one that is not subject to the sinful effects of life in this world.  No more disease or suffering or pain.  We will live with God as God intended us to live all along.  With him and for him and through him.

When will we have these new bodies?  When Jesus comes back again – and we’ll talk about the events surrounding that over the course of the next four weeks.

Now let me touch on a few quick hitters before we move on to our last point.  Because I am often asked these questions – and so here’s my best shot at answering them.

  1. Will we recognize each other in heaven? Yes you will.  You aren’t going to know less there than here.  We will certainly know one another.  And perhaps for the first time, really, we shall be fully known, and fully loved.
  2. Will I see my pet in heaven? Ready for this? Yes. Take it to the bank.  Revelation described Jesus riding a horse when he comes back the second time – and it also mentions lions and lambs.  So if there are animals in heaven, why not your dog.

Well, Jesus didn’t die for dogs – no kidding!  I’m not talking about dogs receiving Jesus as their savior.  They are just a dog.  There’s a difference between you and a cat, you know.  The biggest difference is that I don’t hate you.  Your cat probably does but I don’t.  So all that to say, I don’t think it’s wrong to think you will see you pet in heaven.  I think it’s sweet, even.

  1. Will I get to choose my age? I was just asked this question not long ago- an older lady asked me, Can I choose how old I will be in heaven? Because I’d like to be 24 again.  Why?  say it lady!  You thought you were hot at 24?

Well, Jesus says that in heaven we will not be married – so don’t sweat it.  New body – perfect in every way.  Your new body will make your 24 year old self look like a decrepit raisin.  So don’t worry about that, leave it up to Jesus.

  1. Now really quick hitter – will I turn into an angel in heaven? No.  Angels are angels, Humans are Humans.  And you ain’t no angel, and you never will be.

Will I play the harp in Heaven?  No – that’s hell.

Will I ever get bored in Heaven?  Well, I’ll say this.  If you think heaven is a 24 hour a day, never ending worship service, then yes, that will be boring.  But heaven is not going to be that.  Think about this universe for a moment – I read recently that there’s something like 42 trillion stars in the universe, per person on the face of the earth.  There’s so much of God’s creation we haven’t yet seen.  Boredom is not on the docket.

You know – you and I are always desiring something.  At any time at any moment, we are desiring kinds of people.  We desire this sermon to end.  We desire a donut.  We desire sleep.  We desire nice weather.  We desire a vacation.  And even in those super rare moments in time when everything feels perfect, we desire that feeling to never end.

In heaven, we will find that place, where all of our desires are wrapped up and met in Christ, and we can begin to live a different kind of life.  No – boredom is certainly not in our future.

So let’s wrap up our talk by declaring that – for the person who has crossed the line of faith and has entered the right now kingdom of heaven.

  1. We need not fear death. There is nothing to fear.   1 Corinthians 15 ends by staring death down -taunting it by asking, Where’s your sting?  Where’s your victory!?”   There’s none to be found.  Jesus tore down all death’s banners.  It’s toothless.

For the Christian – death is a blip.  We will wake up on the other side to a place described in Revelation 21,

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

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