Is there a Heaven & Hell?

Chatswood Baptist Church

John 3:13–21

Tonight, as Matt says, is the first in our series of Sunday night talks on “hot topics”—questions about Christianity that go to the heart of what we believe, and whether there are reasons for believing those things, and whether it is right for us to frame our lives around them in the way that we do.
So the whole series, tonight included, has a double audience in mind. In the first place, it’s intended for those of us who are already Christians, with the aim of challenging us to scrutinise the things that we believe and to think about the questions that we or other people might have about our faith, and how we might go about answering them. And in the second place, it’s intended for those of us who are not yet Christians, as a way of opening up conversation about some of those issues, and hopefully as part of a journey toward decision about the person of Jesus and the claims that he makes on our lives. If that’s you then I hope you feel welcome, that the talks over the next few weeks will touch on some of the issues that are important to you, and that you’ll get to ask some of your questions in the discussion time later tonight.
And tonight, the first of those questions in the series: Is there really a heaven and a hell?

“Imagine there’s no heaven…”
It was John Lennon, back in 1971, who famously asked a question of this sort. More than that—he didn’t just ask the question, he invited to imagine a world in which the answer to that question was “No.”

Imagine there’s no heaven; it’s easy if you try.
No hell below us; Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries; it isn’t hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too;
Imagine all the people living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one;
I hope some day you’ll join us and the world will be as one.

He wasn’t the first person to imagine that sort of universe, of course. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, had a similar set of ideas twenty-three centuries ago, as did Democritus before him. And plenty of others in the centuries since have followed in that kind of path, imagining a world in which nothing except what you can perceive with your senses is to be counted as real.

There are some questions to be asked about that vision John Lennon proposes, of course. Is it really plausible to suppose that this world that we can see has simply just existed forever, of its own accord, or that it burst spontaneously into existence without a creator or a designer to imagine it in the first place? And has it really been the case that people who imagine there’s no heaven, and no judgement day to come, and no God who sees and cares about what we do—people who live, as the song says, simply for today—are going to choose to live their lives as a kind of universal brotherhood and sisterhood, sharing all their possessions, living life in peace? When people have tried to construct a society based on strictly materialist principles—people like Lenin (not John Lennon but the other one, the original Lenin) and Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao Zedong—how did that work out for the people who lived in the societies that they created?

Even Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the Enlightenment and the champion of sceptical reason, was convinced when he thought it all over, that categorical materialism was an unliveable philosophy. Even if, as he argued, we can’t have direct, empirical knowledge of invisible things like God and the soul, the belief that human beings are not just matter but possessors of an immortal soul, and the belief that the world we live in is not just the product of random chance but the creation of a God who built into it a kind of basic moral architecture—beliefs of that sort are, as Kant put it, the necessary postulates of practical reason and moral agency. If we are going to live as human beings—as rational, moral, responsible creatures—then we have to postulate (to imagine, if you will) something more than just the visible world of flesh and bones, atoms and molecules.
So there are questions to be asked about that vision John Lennon painted for us, and the way of life he asked us to live in light of it. But my purpose tonight is not really to interrogate a song from the 1970s, as influential and as popular as it may be. My purpose, instead, is to focus 2000 years earlier, on the words and claims of Jesus, and to ask a similar set of questions about what he had to say, and what Christians believe based on that.


“No one has ever gone into heaven”

The passage that I want to zero in on is the one that was read for us by Dean a few minutes ago, from the gospel of John. It’s a passage that begins with the closing words of a conversation between Jesus and a man called Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of his day. And it continues, according to most commentators and translators, with the reflections and conclusions that the writer of the fourth gospel, Jesus’s disciple John, draws from the words of Jesus.

The opening line of the passage begins with an assertion that is every bit as blunt as any of the statements of the sceptics and the Epicureans in the ancient world. “No one,” Jesus reminds Nicodemus, “has ever gone into heaven.” The prologue to the Fourth Gospel, in John chapter 1, concludes with a similar statement: “No one has ever seen God.” We can theorise, we can speculate, we can postulate—and as Kant rightly argues, I think, there are good reasons why we would. But if God is by nature invisible—not just a being within the creation but the maker of all that exists; if heaven is, by definition, outside of this visible creation, not part of the world we inhabit; then of course we haven’t been to heaven, and of course we haven’t seen God.

Believing in God is not like Estragon believing in Godot; it’s more like Hamlet believing in Shakespeare. God is not a character in the play who never shows up; he’s the playwright who authored the whole thing. And in a similar kind of way, believing in heaven doesn’t mean believing in a place within this universe, somewhere up in the sky, that you can reach if you travel far enough. When Khrushchev boasted to his fellow-members of the Communist Party Central Committee that Yuri Gagarin flew into space, but he didn’t see God there, he was hardly offering a devastating rebuttal of Christian faith. Christians have always believed that God is the creator of the universe, not an inhabitant of some obscure corner within it. And Jesus’s words here in John chapter 3 are entirely consistent with that. God and heaven, and hell too for that matter, are not simply the objects of human empirical knowledge and discovery.

“except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man”
But that doesn’t mean that God is somehow trapped in his own unknowability—“stuck up in heaven all alone,” as Joan Osborne imagined him back in the 90s. The claim at the centre of the Christian faith is not that we have discovered God, that one of us has been to heaven and come back with the answers; the claim at the centre of Christianity is that God has reached out to us and made himself known. John 1 verse 18: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Or John 3 verse 13: “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”

As a Christian I believe in heaven for the same reason as I believe in God; because of Jesus, and because of the whole series of God’s acts of self-revelation, that climax and come together in Jesus. It is in Jesus, as Jesus himself puts it to Nathaniel in John chapter 1, that we see heaven opened, the invisible made visible, God’s word become flesh, and the angels of God’s self-revelation ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
“This is the verdict: light has come into the world…”

All this, of course, is magnificently good news if it is true. If the invisible God, the God who made us, has reached out into our world to make himself known; if light has shone into our darkness; if God has made a way for us to become his daughters and his sons, then that is the best news that we could ever hear. Especially if the God we come to know through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is a God of grace and kindness and love; if the God who made the world so loves his creation (and us within that) that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

If Jesus really did do the things he did, and say the things he said, and claim the things he claimed; and if he really was vindicated by God himself through resurrection from the dead, then the God who made us is a God who loves us and wants us to love him; and the God whom we feel compelled to postulate as the architect of good and evil is not only a just judge but also a compassionate Father, who forgives our sins at his own expense and reaches out to us to draw us into his light.
The coming of Jesus is, at its very heart, an event of grace and kindness: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” But at the same time, in a paradoxical sense, it is also an event of judgement. “This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
Jesus doesn’t come into a neutral world with the aim of creating a problem for people who would otherwise have been just fine. He comes into a dark world; a world that is shot through with cruelty and greed and self-centredness; a world that is already under judgement. And he is repeatedly, bluntly, passionately honest about that fact. He doesn’t give us the option of believing in a heaven but not a hell. No-one in the Bible has more to say about hell than Jesus himself.
The hell that he speaks about is not some kind of lurid, medieval nightmare-fantasy. It is the kind of hell that exists because an upright and holy God cannot be anything but condemning of evil and injustice. It is a measured, merited, just hell; the darkness that people love and end up being consumed by, turning away from the light because they choose the darkness over it.

“Whoever believes in him…”
All of this means that you and I have a choice to make: a decision about heaven and hell that is, at its heart, a decision about Jesus. According to the New Testament, the line that matters is not the line between belief and unbelief; it’s the line between belief and unbelief in Jesus. Verse 18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

For those of us who already claim to be believers in Jesus, the challenge tonight is to keep living that way; to keep bending our lives into the light, saying with our deed as well as our words that we are choosing the light over the darkness, living our lives in God and in the sight of God. All too often, I suspect, even we who profess to be Christian believers live our lives as if this world, today, the things that we can see and touch and own, were all that mattered to us. But the Bible leaves us no room for that. To say yes to Jesus is to say yes to the light; to move out of the darkness; to live in this world on the basis of the as-yet-unseen realities of the next.

For those of us who are not yet Christians the challenge of tonight is essentially a challenge about Jesus. The question to go home with is not so much the question about heaven and hell—important as that questions is—but the question about Jesus who speaks of those things. What do you make of Jesus? How familiar are you with the life that he lived and the claims that he made? How are you going to approach the task of making up your mind about him? Those are the questions, according to Jesus at least, on which the whole question of heaven and hell ends up hanging.