What is Heaven Like?

What Is Heaven Like?

Revelation 21:1-5

Dr. Jim Denison

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. Every one 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.

But when we’re done, we need to ask a second question as well. I’ve realized through my study this week that I must also show you why it matters. Why heaven matters on earth.

I have prayed that the answer will be as powerful for you as it has been for me.

What is heaven?

So, 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 in today’s Scripture to John: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (v. 1). According to God himself, heaven is real.

Second, heaven is a place (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 (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 (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” (Psalm 16:11). It’s a place of reward: “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 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 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” (Revelation 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).

Our text 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 Y2K fears or tests or grades; no more. Everything new.

No wonder Jesus called heaven “paradise” (Luke 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” (Luke 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 Corinthians 15:53).

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 (Matthew 8:11); on the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples easily recognized Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:3-4); we will “know as we are known” (1 Corinthians 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?

Now I must ask my other question: why does heaven matter?

I’ve preached on heaven in every church I have pastored, and taught them what I’ve taught you today from God’s word. But only this week did I wrestle with the more pressing question: why does it all matter? Why is heaven relevant for us, today? Or is it?

Time magazine recently published an extensive article by David van Biema entitled “Does heaven exist?” 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 instance, 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. 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 recently 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. 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.


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.

So, are you living for heaven? If you are, one day you’ll be so glad you did.

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?

What is Hell Like?

What Is Hell Like?

Luke 16.19-31

Dr. Jim Denison

This week I found out about a Y2K problem which has 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’s to be done? Some monument companies are trying to create epoxies to fill in the numbers, but without much luck so far. Others have no idea what they’ll do. One person said, Just fill in 1999 + 1, or 2 or 3, or whatever. It’s 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? So far in our Yearning 2 Know series we’ve studied death and heaven. Now we’ll look at the other place. This is probably one of the few sermons you’ve heard in a long time on hell.

I have prayed that it is the closest you’ll get to being there.

A hellish parable

First, let’s walk through Jesus’ parable together. We have 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 his 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. 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.

What is hell like?

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 Revelation 20:15 calls hell “the lake of fire.”

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” (Matthew 22:13; cf. Jude 6).

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 (v. 26). Remember Jesus’ warning: “I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers'” (Matthew 7:23).

And hell is permanent (v. 26); it is the “second death” (Revelation 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 Matthew 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 clear: those whose names are not found written in the “Lamb’s book of life” are cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 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 (Matthew 13:49), then he describes “the fiery furnace.” Paul taught the same (2 Thessalonians 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” (Revelation 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.”


We have learned important facts today.

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 can be sure that 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.