The other day I had an atheist asking me “where heaven is?” and I wasn’t able to answer. The question left a bit unsettled as I was asking God “I would also like to know?”
@Mlungisi1984 Great question It depends on what we mean by the word heaven.
- if you mean the paradise where the thief on the cross was taken and where we go when we die before the return of Christ, then it is a place we go temporarily to dwell with God. I suspect it is not within our physical universe, but is in the spiritual realm. We dwell there until the resurrection.
- if you mean where we ultimately go, God will make a new heaven and a new earth - this heaven and earth will pass away. We will dwell there with resurrected bodies.
I highly recommend the following resources from N. T. Wright in thinking through this question. Hope that helps
Also this book from Jacoby:
Hi Sean, I listen to this interview of NT Wright…I got a lot of answers on this subject of heaven but he also brushes on another topic of hell and it seems he is saying that there is no hell. He is saying that the western culture is one which is fixated on this idea of hell. Do you mind to clarify or lead me to a topic here on rzim where this might be covered. Thanks so much Sean
Initially when I asked the question, I didn’t think that this question is that important, I was only concern with that O wasn’t able to answer that gentleman on the street but I listen to Mr Wright as he speaks about heaven, paradise, body resurrection, new heaven and new earth…I am starting to see it importance and how central it is to our faith as children of God. I am only praying for the grace of God to be able to explain it myself to someone else in simple terms.
@Mlungisi1984 Another great question I agree that our view of how God ultimately handles those who reject Him does matter. Below I will try to give you some resources to think through this issue from multiple viewpoints and consider the different Christian perspectives. I think the challenge when we discuss ‘Hell’ is to hold fast to what Scripture teaches while not going beyond what Scripture teaches out of a desire for certainty or to support an already held position. Where the Scripture is clear we must hold fast - Jesus is the only way, repentance is necessary for salvation, there will be a day of judgment. And where there is less certainty - what does that judgment entail, how will God judge this or that person (only God knows the secrets of the heart), what to do with the difficult texts - we should admit uncertainty while still wrestling towards the truth.
The problem with the English word ‘Hell’ is that it is not even a direct translation of any word in the Bible. It is not a Biblical word. There are 4 words used in the Bible that are sometimes translated ‘hell’ and none of them are equivalent to what unbelievers I have met often mean by the English word ‘hell’. They are:
1 - Gehenna or Valley of Hinnom (New Testament)
2 - Tartarus (New Testament) -
3 - Sheol (Old Testament)
4 - Hades (New Testament)
Gehenna was a trash pit that was once a site of great idolatry. Tartarus and Hades were actually Greek terms describing the abode of the dead or a place of judgment . And Sheol was a Hebrew word used to describe the place where both good and bad people go upon death.
But what do English speakers mean by the word ‘hell’? They think of Dante’s Inferno and paintings from the middle ages of people being tossed into a burning pit screaming while little beings wait to torment them. This picture is not Biblical at all.
The three Christian views of how God handles sin ultimately are:
- Eternal torment - some form of eternal suffering or separation from God
- Conditionalism - those who reject God are judged and then cease to exist
- Universalism - sin is real, but all people will eventually be brought to repentance
Below are some resources from Christians who I would say have wrestled with this question and arrived at a thoughtful answer. Personally, I do not see Biblical warrant for universalism, but there are sincere Christians who have come to that conclusion and I think it is important to fairly represent their perspective.
Universalism - The Consuming Fire
What is important to understand about true Christian universalism is that it takes sin seriously and recognizes that Jesus is the only way to God. Yet, Christians who hold this view believe that somehow God will draw all to Himself. Distortions of this view that deny the need for repentance or give people license to sin are not Biblical. Generally this view considers God’s wrath to be a fire that purifies people through a process perceived as painful to them that leads to their repentance - God’s wrath is against sin and He purifies people in the fire until they recognize their own inner ugliness and return to Him.
This position has some major weaknesses. Scripture gives no indication of a repentance that occurs after death. And Jesus’ frequent injunctions to enter into the Kingdom while the opportunity is near, lest the gates of the Kingdom be locked to entry, make little sense if that is not the case. Also, this positions main argument is that God will reconcile all things to Himself, which includes all sinners, but the use of all in these Biblical passages does not necessarily mean this in context.
God will not conquer evil by crushing it under-foot-any god of man’s idea could do that-but by conquest of heart over heart, of life over life, of life over death, of love over all. George MacDonald
I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing. [I believe] such is the mercy of God that he will hold his children in the consuming fire of his distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son, and the many brethren, rush inside the center of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn. George MacDonald
I do not myself believe that mere punishment exists anywhere in the economy of the highest. I think mere punishment is a human idea, not a divine one. But the consuming fire is more terrible to the evildoer than any idea of punishment invented by the most riotous of human imaginations. Punishment it is, though not mere punishment, which is a thing not of creation but destruction: it is a power of God and for his creature. As love is God’s being and creative energy in one, so the pains of God are to the recreation of the things his love has made, and sin has unmade. George MacDonald
I highly recommend ‘Surprised by Hope’ it’s fairly easy to read and I found it challenged me on what I had believed because of what I had been taught as young child but hadn’t questioned it since.
Some very deep and wide thoughts here! But perhaps the atheist asking the question is not looking for a thoughtful answer. It’s one of those sophomoric “gotcha” questions hawked on atheist web sites.
In response, perhaps you could try this: “Let me ask you a question. The Big Bang, where did that take place?”
You see, we all have a mystery, both Christian and atheist. This universe bounds our understanding and we cannot get outside it or before it while we are living. God can enter it and provide information, but we are limited. And because it is finite, temporal, and material, the beginning requires an infinite, eternal, immaterial cause. And if “natural” is what happens in this universe, supernatural is what happens outside or before. Thus the Big Bang requires that we all “believe in” the supernatural.
Since your relationship with this person is more important than winning, the way you engage is important. You don’t want to imply that you wish to “win” some arbitrary word battle, but being ready with a thoughtful way to engage always helps.
Hope this is helpful!