What happens when we die?
If there’s one constant throughout almost every human culture and religion that’s ever existed, it’s a sense that there’s more to human existence than what we do and experience during the everyday humdrum of our lives. A suspicion that death isn’t the end, but just a step towards… something else.
So what is that something else? Is it a paradisical heaven filled with fluffy white clouds and a bearded God on his throne? Is it a higher level of consciousness and wisdom? A state of infinite happiness and peace? A ghostly world from which the dead occasionally speak to their loved ones?
And what about those… gloomier ideas about the afterlife? The ones involving pitchforks, grinning red devils, and bonfires?
It’s impossible to get an exact picture of what the afterlife is like. But one religious source—the Bible—provides lots of consistent clues and ideas about what lies in store for us after we pass on. According to the Bible, there are two places we can wind up: Heaven and (you guessed it) Hell. What does the Bible say about these places? Do they match up to the stereotypes we mentioned above?
Heaven is described as a place of perfect peace and joy—a state of being in which we’re perfectly in tune with God. The Bible uses different illustrations to describe heaven—it’s described as a city of gold, as a place where fear, sickness, and pain are nonexistent. Whether heaven is literally a city of gold, or whether that’s just a metaphor trying to describe something indescribably beautiful, we don’t know. But the Bible teaches that this heaven awaits everyone who has accepted the Good News and who has come to know Jesus.
Hell is a place for those who have rejected God. Jesus spoke about hell, often using the image of fire and torment to describe it. Most of the goofy-sounding stereotypes you’ve heard of hell—pointy-eared devils, pitchforks, etc.—were invented by others hundreds of years later. Many Christians today believe that Jesus’ words are not literal descriptions of hell, but rather metaphors trying to describe the awfulness of an eternity spent separated from God’s love. Whether hell is a place of fire and brimstone or not, it’s a place to avoid. Steering clear of hell is a simple matter of accepting the Good News and believing in Jesus.
Heaven and hell are powerful visions, inspiring and frightening in turn. But there’s a problem that crops up when we spend too much time fretting and guessing about the afterlife. Have you ever heard the phrase “she was so heavenly minded, she was no earthly good”? It refers to a person so focused on getting into heaven that she’s forgotten to live life to the fullest while she’s still alive. If we’re spending our lives looking forward to, or dreading, the afterlife, we run the risk of forgetting to live in the here and now.
The Bible tells us that heaven and hell exist, but it spends much more time talking about what we can do while we’re still alive and here on earth. God has a message of good news for you not just far off in some future afterlife, but right now. You can read more about it, or explore some of the other topics here.