What Is Eternity Like?

David Finkbeiner  and J. Brian Tucker
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Where is history going? This profound question is one every worldview must answer. The Christian answer, found in Scripture, is clear: the doctrine of the eternal states (or final states). As the name indicates, this describes the eternal condition of all human beings resulting from the consummation of God’s work of redemption and judgment. There are two eternal states, that of the condemned (hell) and that of the redeemed (heaven).

Let’s start with the bad news, the eternal state of the condemned. Those who have never been redeemed by Christ through faith in Him (and are thus still in their sins) face hell as their inevitable destiny (John 3:18, 36). The term “hell” encompasses both the intermediate state of unbelievers in Hades and their final state in the lake of fire (Gehenna). The focus here is on the latter. The fundamental reality of the final state of all unbelievers is eternal death, banishment forever from the living God and the infinite joy His presence entails. Instead, they face the dreadful prospects of God’s holy wrath (Rom. 2:6–8; 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:7–10; Rev. 6:15–18; 9:15), “a terrifying thing” indeed (Heb. 10:31 NASB). It is a place of ruin and suffering, being described as “eternal fire,” (Matt. 25:41), “destruction” (Matt. 7:13–14; 2 Thess. 1:9), “outer darkness” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 8:12), and torment “with fire and brimstone” (Rev. 14:10–11). This suffering indicates that its inhabitants will be conscious. Worse still, they will experience it eternally (Matt. 25:41, 46; Mark 9:43, 48; Rev. 14:9–11; 2 Thess. 1:9).

It will be a place of unspeakable beauty, resplendent in glory—Eden intensified and expanded.

The reality of hell reflects God’s just punishment, a righteous reckoning (Matt. 24:46). As a result, there will be degrees of punishment in hell (Matt. 11:21–24; Luke 12:47–48; 20:47). Yet for everyone in hell, the punishment will never end, for sin is an offense against the infinite God, calling for an infinite punishment; and in any case, it’s likely that hell’s inhabitants will continue to sin throughout eternity.

Because the prospects of nonbelievers are so horrifying, some try to minimize them. Universalists claim that eventually all human beings will be reconciled to God and end up in heaven. But this violates Scripture’s teaching that hell is an eternal reality for all unbelievers. In addition, annihilationists maintain that the condemned in hell will suffer for a time, but eventually they will cease to exist. They argue that Scripture’s language of “destruction” and “fire” suggests annihilation, and this annihilation is “eternal” in the sense that it lasts forever. But in regard to hell, the language for “destruction” more likely speaks of ruin rather than annihilation. Moreover, Scripture’s teaching about eternal conscious suffering militates against the notion that the condemned cease to exist. Sadly, then, Scripture does teach that the prospects of the unbeliever are as horrifying as described previously. The believer’s appropriate response to the reality of hell is sorrow for those condemned (e.g., Rom. 9:2–3), awe before God’s righteous judgment (Rev. 19:1–3), a passion to share the gospel with the lost (2 Tim. 2:10), and thankful praise for God’s redemptive work in our lives (Rom. 11:33–36).

The prospects of believers are infinitely brighter, for heaven is their future. Like the word “hell,” “heaven” similarly refers both to believers’ intermediate state as well as their final state. Again, the focus here is on the latter. Revelation 21–22 describe the eternal state of the redeemed as a new heaven and earth, indeed, as the New Jerusalem. Sin in all its forms and effects will be forever banished, as will death itself, in this place with no sorrow, no suffering, no pain. It will be a place of unspeakable beauty, resplendent in glory—Eden intensified and expanded. We will dwell there with our glorified, immortal bodies, perfectly suited for endless life. But most important of all, God Himself will dwell there with His people, and so we will experience the unending bliss of unhindered fellowship with Him. It is this for which we were made. Little wonder that believers long for Christ’s soon return. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).

For Further Reading:

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