People may speak of spending eternity with God in heaven, and they may also speak of eternal punishment in hell. There has been a recent wave of theologians who deny that punishment for sin is eternal, and a number of others have written books countering that wave with titles such as Whatever Became of Hell and Erasing Hell. Technically speaking, heaven and hell are not places of eternal blessing or eternal torment. Heaven and hell refer to the places of the dead at this moment.
The word hell is often used to translate a number of terms (sheol in the Old Testament, and gehenna, hades and tartarus in the New Testament.) These terms usually refer to a “holding place” for the dead. Gehenna certainly adds the concept of torment. In Revelation 20:14 we see that death and hell are cast into the lake of fire. Technically, the lake of fire, not hell, is the place of eternal torment, but in modern usage most people think of it as hell. The concept of eternal punishment and separation from God is probably more important than whether the name attached to it is technically correct.
Likewise, “heaven” is not the final destination for believers in Christ. In the Old Testament, heaven usually refers to “the heavens,” that is, the sky or maybe what we would call space—some place “up there.” This came to be associated with where God is. In Revelation, we see worship of God taking place in heaven (chapters 4—5), but the word heaven can also refer to “the sky.” When Jesus ascended, He ascended “into heaven” (Acts 1:11), but this may simply mean that He went up, without specifying that He went to a place called heaven. Likewise, when He returns, he will descend from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16). In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul relates the experience of being caught up into the “third heaven,” which is the very abode of God. Likewise, Hebrews speaks of Jesus’ ministry in heaven (Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 9:24–25). Since 2 Corinthians 5:8 says that if believers are “away from the body,” that is, dead, they are “at home with the Lord,” then it is accurate to say that a Christian who dies “goes to heaven.”
However, heaven is not the eternal home of the Christian. Second Corinthians 5 also points out that while in heaven, away from the body, we look forward to our resurrection body. Too often, eternity with God is pictured as sitting on clouds and playing harps. Human beings were created with physical bodies, and those who have become children of God by faith in Christ are waiting for new physical, material bodies. We also know that the current heavens and earth (as referred to in Genesis 1:1) will be destroyed and replaced with new heavens and a new earth “where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:12–13).
The new heavens and earth are the eternal home for the believer. The imagery in Revelation 21—22 seems to point to Eden-like conditions. Once again God will dwell among His people. Adam and Eve were given the job of tending the garden and subduing the earth before the fall, and there is every reason to believe that the people of God who inhabit the new earth in resurrection bodies will continue the work of Adam and Eve before the fall, enjoying the work they do and the unhindered fellowship with God. On the new earth, we will continue to work, learn, grow, develop, and accomplish things. Since there were animals in Eden, there may very well be animals on the new earth as well.
An old song says, “This world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through,” and a few lines later, “If heaven’s not my home, then, Lord, what will I do?” It is true that this world is not our home. But it would be technically correct to say that heaven is not our home, either. When we die and go to heaven, it, too, will be a place that we are just “passing through” as we await our new bodies made to live, work, worship, and fellowship on the new earth. In this sense, what we think of as heaven—a place of full enjoyment of the presence of God—will not be in heaven but on earth—the recreated new earth.
Revelation 21:1–5 records this scene: “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 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!’”
It is important to note that “heaven comes to earth” only through God’s miraculous intervention and re-creation. No amount of human effort, as noble is it may be in some cases, will ever be able to create “heaven on earth.” We cannot manufacture utopia. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Christians have access to God and experience freedom from many of the effects of sin, but we still only have a glimpse of what is yet to come.