I have often heard God described as “the God of the second chance,” and I know that to be true because of the many second chances He has given me. God has been incredibly gracious toward me and you and everyone else, so it is not surprising that many of us believe that our loving God has made arrangements for all of us to go to heaven.
Some of us are convinced that evil people are made ready for heaven in some kind of purgatory. Others believe we are in a karmic loop and are reincarnated until we get it right.
The idea behind the belief in a second chance after death is that hell is full of people saying, “If I only I knew then what I know now. I was so blind. If God gave me another chance, I would repent and do whatever He says.”
But is that true? Is hell full of folks who would like a second chance from God?
The Bible doesn’t teach that. Nor does what we know about human nature. What we’ve learned about human nature is that we make our choices and then our choices make us. The choices we make over the course of our lives put us on a kind of moral trajectory. Each of us is in the process of becoming a certain kind of person.
We see that in ourselves and everyone around us. Some people believe Jesus has the answers to all of life’s questions. They wholeheartedly trust in God and His Word. They become apprentices of Jesus and are committed to learning how to partner with God. They often fall short of their commitment and sometimes stray from the truth, but they remain in conversation with God. They read their Bible, they pray, they hang out with others who are apprenticed to Jesus, and after awhile things start to turn around. They learn that the kingdom of heaven is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. They gain a peace they have never experienced and learn how to be content regardless of circumstances. Jesus said that for the poor in spirit, the kingdom is a present reality and a harbinger of what awaits them in heaven.
Then there are those who have no interest in following Jesus. They are committed to living life on their terms. They look at the world around them and see evidence of a Creator. They say no. They hear Jesus’s invitation to follow. They say no. Family and friends encourage them to trust God. They say no. They regularly experience promptings from the Holy Spirit. They say no. They reject the joy that can only be found in Christ and become bitter, dissatisfied, and isolated. As the years go by, they become increasingly toxic.
People sometimes ask if the fiery hell described in the Bible is literal or figurative, but in a real sense it doesn’t matter. The physical location isn’t what makes it hell–what makes it hell is the person you have become.
A lot of us have cartoon pictures of hell in our minds because we’ve never stopped to think about hell from an adult perspective. We have the idea that heaven is an eternal Disneyland, and hell is a perpetual pain factory. We believe that if we can only avoid hell and get into heaven, we will be happy regardless of the kind of person we are. But heaven isn’t a giant pleasure emporium. Heaven is a community for a certain kind of people–those who have been transformed by God.
If the idea of submitting to God and living humbly as a servant is of no interest to you in this life, it will be infinitely more repulsive after you die. The last place you would want to be is heaven. This truth prompted C.S. Lewis to observe, “The gates of hell are locked from the inside.”
I realize this is hard for many to accept, so I would like to share a Bible passage that may be an eye-opener. The sixteenth chapter of the book of Revelation describes seven terrible things that will happen when God responds to evil:
“Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, ‘Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.’ So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshiped his statue. The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died. Then the third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs, and they became blood… Then the fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, causing it to scorch everyone with its fire. Everyone was burned by this blast of heat, and they cursed the name of God, who had control over all these plagues. They did not repent of their sins and turn to God and give him glory. Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. His subjects ground their teeth in anguish, and they cursed the God of heaven for their pains and sores. But they did not repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. Then the sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great Euphrates River, and it dried up so that the kings from the east could march their armies toward the west without hindrance… Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air. And a mighty shout came from the throne in the Temple, saying, “It is finished!” Then the thunder crashed and rolled, and lightning flashed. And a great earthquake struck–the worst since people were placed on the earth… There was a terrible hailstorm, and hailstones weighing seventy-five pounds fell from the sky onto the people below. They cursed God because of the terrible plague of the hailstorm” (Revelation 16:1-21).
I don’t like reading this passage because the people described here may well be my family, friends, and neighbors. When the end comes, they will know for a certainty that their salvation depends on God, but instead of turning to Him, they will curse Him. And God could give these people a million more chances to repent, and it wouldn’t matter, because these are people who have chosen of their own free will to reject God, and this has made them into a certain kind of person.
The same is true for you and I. Each of us is on our way to becoming one of two kinds of people: we are gradually becoming either a pure and noble child of God or else we are changing into a twisted foul creature that one day will not be recognizable as human. It will be one or the other. This is what is at stake when we talk about heaven and hell. In Matthew 13, Jesus says, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will remove from his Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil, and the angels will throw them into the fiery furnace….”
When you read about heaven and hell in the Bible, know that God is not painting cartoon pictures of pleasure and pain factories–He is speaking about the destiny of the human race.