As I have traveled over the years, I have seen some beautiful places On the cover of this journal is a picture I took on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. We were hiking in delightful weather through a beautiful area high above Waiamea Canyon when we came to a ridge that had the ocean on one side and the canyon on the other. As we stood there taking in the beautiful view and feeling the warmth and softness of the wind, someone said, "This is heaven on earth."
One of the games that the media in this country likes to play is to ask people questions that cause them to leave a negative view about their beliefs. We see reports of how many people in a survey believe in heaven, and almost always we are told that a vastly smaller percentage believe in hell. Questions about man's evolution are asked in such a way that the person answering the question is baited into dealing with a monkey-to-man discussion instead of the real issue about the uniqueness of man as a being created in God's image.
To understand the concepts involved in heaven and hell as well as the real origin of man, one needs to get above the view that these questions are physical questions. There might be places in Hawaii or elsewhere that are so beautiful that humans might be inclined to call them paradise, but they are a long way from heaven.
The biblical description of man describes man as a life form uniquely created in the image of God. This does not mean that we look physically like God. If that were the case, we would all be identical because we were created in the image of the same thing. Man's creation in God's image has nothing to do with our physical bodies. The biblical claim is that man possesses a spiritual component which no other living thing has.
The skeptic may suggest that what we have just said is a good religious tradition but is unsupported in any other way. There is, however, a vast amount of evidence that man is primarily defined by spiritual attributes and not physical ones. Man engages in worship, he creates art, he can be taught to think, he feels guilt, and he has the capacity to be sympathetic. None of these characteristics can be explained in terms of his intelligence because severely retarded human beings do all these things. It cannot be explained in terms of environment because animals raised in human homes do not do these things. Exhaustive studies have confirmed over and over that man is unique, and this uniqueness is manifested in visible ways.
When the creation/evolution controversy gets going on man's evolution, the debate always centers on physical evidence of changes that have occurred in various forms of primates. These debates may be useful in some ways, but they do not touch on what really makes man human.
In the same way, discussions about heaven and hell frequently seem to be couched in physical views of what they represent. Heaven is not a place in the sense that South Bend, Indiana, is a place. The physical bodies in which we now reside are not the bodies that are going to be in heaven. The concept of "dust-to-dust" is real. What Jesus talks about is the notion that this physical body and all that can corrupt it are to be destroyed (see Matthew 10:28).
So what is heaven like? It would be most presumptuous for anyone to pretend to be able to answer that question with any degree of confidence. There are some things that both the Bible and science hint at that may give us a clue. We are told that our entry to heaven will be at the end of time when the physical world will dissolve (see 2 Peter 3:1-12). Matter cannot exist without time and in fact, our mathematical equations that describe matter show that if time is zero, matter as we know it cannot exist.
If time becomes nonexistent, what happens to man's spiritual nature? One point that we can understand is that we become unlimited in space. Time limits us in space now, and we even say, "if I only had time, I would go to.," indicating time's constraint on our physical existence. Time also is connected to pain-at least physical pain. I have a son who has a form of muscular dystrophy. One test that has been done on Tim is to put an electric shock in his foot and measure how long it takes for the pain to register in his brain on an electroencephalogram. These measurements tell doctors if the MD is progressing. If time stopped, would the pain sensation ever reach his brain? Obviously timelessness means a freedom from pain dependent on nerves and brain tissue. In a similar way, we can see that crying and sorrow are time-dependent quantities, all of which together enables us to see the meaning behind Revelation 21:4 as it describes what it will be like to be in heaven. All that this discussion does is to identify for us some of the properties of heaven. It may not be complete, but it is far more compelling than portrayals of playing harps while sitting on clouds.
It would be logical at this point to ask what the nature of hell is. The simplest definition of hell is that it is complete and total separation from God. That means total and complete separation from all of the positive things associated with God. What would it be like to live in a world without love? If God is love and we are separated from God, then being separated from love is one property of hell. Jesus said that hell is a place reserved for the devil and his angels. Over and over, hell is described in terms of death (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). The skeptic inevitably wants the believer to tell him who is going to be there, but no human can or should try to answer that question. God is the Judge and is described over and over as fair and just. How God will handle the tough questions concerning people who never had a chance to learn of Him is not a question that any of us can answer.
There are many other questions that can be raised. Can a soul die? Will we know each other? These kinds of questions may be interesting and convey things we would like to know, but because our existence will be so radically different than what we have in this life, there is no way to understand them. We do not even fully comprehend the "new body" that Paul speaks of us having in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44. The most beautiful and rapturous experience we have in this life may be called paradise by our poets and novelists, but they will pale into insignificance when viewed from our existence in heaven. -John N. Clayton
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